Could a Tick Bite Make You Allergic to Red Meat?

The Lone Star tick may be the culprit

Have you heard of tick bites that can cause a red meat allergy? It’s uncommon, but there are people who can develop a sensitivity to beef, lamb or pork after a series of bites from a particular tick. This tiny critter, called the Lone Star tick, mostly affects people in the central and southern regions of the country. But it seems to be spreading as the tick’s range expands. In people who are susceptible, multiple bites from this tick seem to cause sensitization to an allergen known as alpha-gal. According to allergist-immunologist Jaclyn Bjelac, MD, “This can potentially lead to allergic reactions when you eat red meat.”

What symptoms should you watch for?

Most patients who have an allergic reaction to alpha-gal develop symptoms after a series of bites. “We believe that it’s because alpha-gal is present in the GI tract of the tick,” Dr. Bjelac explains. When the tick latches onto your skin and bites — which is painless — it releases the alpha-gal. And, for some people, that exposure triggers the immune system. The resulting allergic reaction typically occurs between three and six hours after you eat red meat. Symptoms may include:
  • Hives or skin rash
  • Nausea or diarrhea
  • Stuffy/runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Headaches
  • Vomiting
  • Anaphylaxis (a life-threatening allergic response)
For most food allergies, you will notice a reaction within an hour after eating the food culprit, Dr. Bjelac says. “One reason for the disparity in the timing of the allergic reaction is because alpha-gal is a carbohydrate, while most other food allergens are proteins,” she says. You can treat the symptoms just as you would other allergic reactions. For a mild reaction, you can take an antihistamine. For serious reactions, such as anaphylaxis, you’ll likely need an epinephrine auto-injector and a trip to the emergency department, Dr. Bjelac says.

How can you protect yourself from tick bites?

If you plan to visit a wooded area or another location where ticks are often found, take extra precautions. Here are some tips:
  • Avoid wooded and brushy areas with high grass.
  • Stay on trails.
  • Apply tick repellent on your skin and clothing.
  • Wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts to reduce your skin exposure.
The bites are painless, so you may not even notice when a tick latches on. When you return from an area where ticks may live, it’s a good idea to remove your clothing and inspect your skin carefully for ticks. “Remove the tick promptly if you find one on your skin,” says Dr. Bjelac. “The head of the tick is under the skin and the simplest way to extract it is to get tweezers and pull it out in one piece.”

When should you call your doctor?

Once your doctor diagnoses a meat allergy, the best and only treatment is to avoid eating red meats, Dr. Bjelac says. If you have concerns about food allergies or if you have unexplained symptoms, call your doctor. An allergy and immunology specialist can advise you on what testing or food-avoidance measures are right for you, she says.

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