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Use caution to prevent spread of tick-borne illnesses

Alpha-gal syndrome, also called alpha-gal allergy, red meat allergy, and tick bite meat allergy, is a serious, potentially life-threatening allergy. People who have this allergy have symptoms that occur after eating red meat or are exposed to other products containing the chemical alpha-gal. Alpha-gal can be found in pork, beef, rabbit, lamb, venison, and products made from mammals including gelatin, cow’s milk, and milk products. Symptoms can include hives, itchy rash, nausea, vomiting, heartburn, indigestion, diarrhea, cough, shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, drop in blood pressure, swelling, dizziness, faintness, or severe stomach pain.

Alpha-gal syndrome is caused when a tick bites you, and that bite gives you the alpha galactose molecule. In the U.S. the lone star tick is the main source of alpha-gal allergy. People who are bitten by the ticks develop antibodies against the alpha-gal sugar causing the body to have an allergic reaction to alpha-gal.

There were two grand realizations of the existence of this alpha-gal allergy. In 2002 Thomas Platts Mills was giving the cancer drug cetuximab to cancer patients when he realized that some were having major allergic reactions to the drug. Through tests, he discovered that the patients seemed to be having an allergic reaction to the alpha-gal chemical in the drug. After some time they eventually discovered that patients developed this after they were bitten by star ticks. Then there is Sheryl van Nunen from Australia. In 2007 she was the first immunologist in the world to publish a paper linking the connection between ticks and meat allergies, causing others around the world to recognize this meat allergy for the first time. Something incredibly unique about this allergy is that symptoms mostly occur after 2 to 6 hours. Most allergies happen within seconds or minutes after exposure. This is one of the reasons why it has taken so long to discover this allergy. Naturally most people did not connect their allergic reaction to the burger they ate four hours ago.

What is even more unusual is that the alpha-gal allergy is one of the first known carbohydrate-based allergies. Meaning a tick causing someone to develop an allergic reaction due to a bite is highly unusual, especially with something as specific as alpha-gal. Scientists are still unsure as to why this happens.

Though evidence suggests that bites from certain tick species can lead to alpha-gal syndrome through a person’s alpha-gal specific IgE levels. IgE is the antibody Immunoglobulin E. When you have an allergy, your immune system overreacts producing IgE. It travels to the cells that release chemicals, causing an allergic reaction.

Those who develop an allergic reaction to alpha-gal live mostly in the southeast and high tick areas. Another strange thing about this allergy is that it develops in areas outside of these areas including Hawaii. Luckily not everyone bitten by ticks with alpha-gal will develop this allergy. It is also fortunate that those who develop the alpha-gal allergy have the potential of losing it. This depends on how bad the allergy is and if you are not bitten by another tick with alpha-gal. You would eventually be able to eat red meat. Unfortunately this can take a few months or a few years to go away.

The only way for you to prevent developing the alpha-gal allergy is simply to do your best to avoid being bitten by ticks. Ticks live in grassy, brushy, or wooded areas, or on animals. Any time you spend outside, has the potential of you being bitten by ticks. So avoid wooded and brushy areas with high grass and leaf litter. Also make sure to walk in the center of trails. Use clothing that contains permethrin, an insecticide. Permethrin can be used to treat boots, clothing and camping gear and remain protective through several washings. There are other insecticides that repel ticks as well, so make sure to research which works best for you and your family.

After you come indoors check your clothing for ticks or else you may bring them in your home. It is also recommended that you tumble dry clothes in a dryer on high heat for 10 minutes to kill ticks on dry clothing after entering indoors. Also make sure to examine your pets thoroughly. Showering is also suggested, it may help in washing off unattached ticks and is a good opportunity to do a tick check. When checking for ticks make sure to look under the arms, in and around the ears, inside the belly button, back of the knees, in and around the hair, between the legs, and around the waist.