Why are people who have been eating steak for decades suddenly developing an allergic reaction to red meat? That’s what doctors began asking themselves after a large number of people in the United States began complaining of meat allergies.
To be sure, meat allergies are rare. Most food allergies in the United States can be attributed to the “Big 8” foods: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, soy, fish, and shellfish. That’s why scientists were all the more confused when a surge of people began complaining of pork, beef, lamb, and venison allergies. After studying a number of factors, researchers realized that the victims had one thing in common: They had all been bitten by a little arachnid known as the Lone Star Tick. With that discovery, scientists started putting the pieces together.
The Lone Star Tick Bite
The tick at the center of the meat allergy proliferation is most common in wooded areas of the Midwest, East, and Southeast of the U.S. Its preferred host is the white-tailed deer, which is prevalent in these habitats. When the tick bites the deer, it picks up something known as “alpha gal” from its blood. Although alpha gal sounds like a strong female superhero, it’s really just a carbohydrate. Alpha gal is present in the tick’s saliva when it bites humans. Your body perceives the alpha-gal carb as a foreign invading army and rallies all of its defenses against it. After your body reacts to the alpha-gal sugar in tick bites, it will react negatively to the carbohydrate when it detects it in other red meats.
With most food allergies, your body reacts right away with symptoms. But the tick-induced allergy may not show up for 3 to 6 hours. That’s why many people fail to make the connection between the allergy source and its symptoms
- Itching all over the body
- Gastrointestinal problems
- Respiratory problems such as wheezing and asthma (very common)
- Life-threatening anaphylaxis
Note that alpha gal syndrome is the only food allergy that produces delayed anaphylaxis. With all other food allergies, this severe reaction occurs right after eating the trigger food.
Tick bites are more common in summer, so try to avoid tick-friendly habitats, including wooded areas with tall grasses. If you decide to venture into these areas, don’t leave home without EPA-affirmed insect repellant. And note that not everyone is prone to tick bites. Scientists theorize that some people’s skin smells better to ticks than others.
Talk to your physician if you have a meat allergy or any other type of food allergy. Your physician can order a food allergy test kit and prescribe a food allergy treatment program using sublingual immunotherapy (under-the-tongue allergy drops).