Wednesday, February 1st, 2023
Wednesday, February 1st, 2023

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Lone Star tick bite causes allergic reaction to red meat

If hunters, anglers, and hikers think Lyme disease is the only tick-borne disorder to worry about, they should think again. There is a newcomer on the scene, and it can be every bit as bad as the more-familiar Lyme disease. 
Recognizing the symptoms, understanding the cause, and taking your concerns to a doctor could save you a lot of distress and might even save your life.
A few months after returning home from the Smoky Mountains, John Nale (author’s brother) began having reoccurring periods of general nausea, bloating, pain, and intestinal distress. The symptoms became progressively more severe over several months. When he broke out with hives during one episode, his doctor referred him to an allergist.
Tests were ordered, resulting in the diagnosis that Nale had developed an allergic reaction to red meat. This is not something that a normal hunter, angler, and barbecue-loving guy wants to hear. Nale wondered how he could suddenly be allergic to red meat when he had been eating it all of his life. 
According to Nale’s allergist, the likely cause was a bite from a Lone Star tick.
This problem originally was identified in the United States in 2002, and the allergy was not definitely linked to tick bites until 2011. University of Virginia allergist Thomas Platts-Mills first made the connection when he developed the allergy himself after getting several tick bites while hiking in 2007. 
Platts-Mills and his University of Virginia associates have been at the forefront of research on this puzzling allergy.  
This red meat allergy – now identified as the alpha-gal allergy – is unusual for several reasons. It is the only known food allergy with a delayed onset of symptoms. While most food allergies cause immediate symptoms, the alpha-gal allergy causes varying symptoms that arise generally four to eight hours after eating red meat.
“Most people hear about severe food allergies occurring immediately after ingesting the food, in fact often while still at the table, for foods such as peanuts, tree nuts, or shellfish,” said Michael Palumbo, a Pittsburgh allergist. 
“In contrast, these newly reported cases of reactions to alpha-gal as transmitted through the tick vector often occur several hours after the food was ingested. Therefore, food allergy is not always suspected immediately.”
Palumbo also pointed out that, with these patients, it usually takes several reactions until they connect eating red meat to the problem.
Most allergic reactions are caused by proteins, but in this case, the culprit is a sugar named galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose – or alpha-gal for short. 
Alpha-gal is found naturally in beef, pork, venison, lamb, bison, goat, and rabbit. Some people react after eating only one or two of the red meats or they react just to meat with high fat content. Researchers are unsure why this happens.
“We also believe that there is a connection between the fat content of the meat and the way the body reacts to it. Meats with higher fat – like hamburgers – seem to cause more reactions than lean meats like venison,” said allergist Scott Commins, a colleague of Platts-Mills.
“There is also evidence that there is a connection to fat and that could explain the delay,” Platts-Mills added. “It takes at least four hours for the very small fat particles to enter the blood stream, and our hypothesis is that the alpha-gal sugar links with the fat.”
The Lone Star tick’s original home was in southwestern states, such as Texas – hence the name. However, the tick’s range has been expanding east and north and now extends to northern Ohio..
“The increase in the number of cases of this allergy has been quite dramatic,” Platts-Mills noted. “It seems to have increased more than it should have.”
Research shows that some Lone Star ticks carry the alpha-gal sugar in their digestive tracts, possibly the result of biting a non-human mammal. That tick then bites a human, causing an immune response; the body registers alpha-gal as a foreign substance and produces antibodies. 
The next time the person ingests red meat carrying the sugar, it triggers an allergic reaction. Symptoms could be as mild as itching or as severe as respiratory distress.
Like the black-legged deer tick, the Lone Star tick’s most common host is the white-tailed deer. According to Platts-Mills, the more deer, the quicker the spread of the allergy.
Researchers are still studying the allergy. Platts-Mills identified the allergy’s delayed response and the role of the tick’s bite as current research targets.
“We are 100 percent sure that ticks can do this. We are not sure that there isn’t something else involved,” he said.
Although there has been more publicity during the past two years, most users of the outdoors are still unaware of the risk. Even doctors often are slow to make the correct diagnosis.
Preventing the tick bite is your first line of defense. Once the allergy has been acquired, the only safe practice is to avoid eating red meat. Some evidence suggests that the allergic response will decrease over time.
Nonetheless, most people who have experienced the allergy’s symptoms avoid pushing their luck.
“I know that my reaction was actually mild compared to some, and I’m lucky in that pork doesn’t seem to bother me. Even so, I haven’t eaten a hamburger in two years,” Nale said. “It is mostly chicken or fish for me.”

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