Tick bites are a common nuisance in the U.S., but in the last 13 years, certain ticks have caused a severe and puzzling food allergy. Lone star ticks, commonly found in the Southeastern U.S., can transmit alpha-gal, a sugar that triggers an allergic reaction to red meat and mammal products like dairy and gelatin.
While alpha-gal syndrome is not typically fatal, it has affected an estimated 450,000 Americans, leading to intense reactions. Symptoms may not be immediately apparent, taking hours to manifest after consuming mammal products. Some common symptoms include hives, breathing difficulties, severe stomach pain, nausea, dizziness, and facial swelling. It's possible to experience any one of these symptoms, and if they occur, it's essential to seek testing. Certain factors, such as exercise, alcohol consumption, and the use of anti-inflammatory drugs like aspirin and ibuprofen, can make individuals more susceptible to the allergy after a tick bite. Those concerned about their sensitivity to red meat can undergo yearly blood tests to check antibody levels against the sugar.
Dr. Scott Commins, a researcher at the University of North Carolina, who has written about alpha-gal syndrome for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has suggested that it could be the 10th most common food allergy in the U.S. While the allergy can subside in one-fifth of those affected, it's crucial to avoid tick bites, as reinfection can prolong the syndrome. Alongside tick avoidance, experts recommend dietary adjustments and carrying epinephrine, a hormone that treats severe allergic reactions. It's important to note that not everyone bitten by ticks will develop alpha-gal syndrome, but studies indicate a higher likelihood of development if the bite is scratched.
Despite symptoms being reported for over a decade, many healthcare professionals lack confidence in diagnosing this allergy, and some remain unaware of its existence. A 2022 survey involving nearly 1,500 healthcare professionals revealed that only 5% could correctly identify it. Initially, the allergy was discovered when patients reacted to a cancer drug containing mouse cells and alpha-gal sugar. In 2011, scientists established that lone star tick bites could also transmit it. Test results from U.S. commercial laboratories have shown an increase in positive cases, rising from 13,000 in 2017 to nearly 20,000 last year. The upswing can be attributed to various factors, including lone star ticks expanding beyond their Southeastern habitats, increasing contact with humans, and a growing number of doctors diagnosing alpha-gal syndrome. Some northern states like Wisconsin have reported a few suspected cases.
The meat tick allergy is becoming a more significant concern in the U.S. due to the spreading lone star tick population and a lack of professional awareness. When venturing into wooded areas, it's advisable to wear long sleeves and pants and promptly check for ticks after outdoor activities.
[Source: AP News; Permanente Medicine]