Tick Bites Related To Meat Allergies
June 21, 2012

Tick Bites Related To Meat Allergies

Connie K. Ho for redOrbit.com

Beware of tick bites, meat lovers! Researchers recently reported a link between bites by Lone Star ticks and meat allergies. Over 1,500 Americans are affected by food allergy galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose (otherwise known as alpha-gal), according to two allergists from the University of Virginia.

Specifically, if saliva enters the wound, it may initiate an allergic reaction to meat. As a result, even the most die-hard carnivores will want to convert to vegetarianism. Allergies are generally described as immune responses to foreign substances.

"People will eat beef and then anywhere from three to six hours later start having a reaction; anything from hives to full-blown anaphylactic shock," explained Dr. Scott Commins, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, in an ABC News article. "And most people want to avoid having the reaction, so they try to stay away from the food that triggers it."

Cases of the allergy are being reported around the East Coast and into the Bible Belt, regions that are particularly covered by Lone Star ticks.

"It's hard to prove," noted Commins on the relationship between meat allergies and the Lone Star ticks in the ABC News article. "We're still searching for the mechanism."

In particular, Alpha-gal is made up of various sugars stuck together in the blood and is found in the meat of all non-primate animals like cats, dogs, and deer.

"The answer to the allergy is sugar," commented Dr. Thomas Platts-Mills, who first published the findings in 2009 with Commins, in a CNN article.

Patients who have alpha-gal are similar in that they all have at least one tick bite. Platts-Mills, who was also diagnosed with alpha-gal, figured out the link between the two after a hike in the woods where he had received numerous bites. He saw that his level of IgE, which quantifies the alpha-gal allergy in blood, rose by several-hundred points. As a result, he concluded that there was some kind of relationship between the quantity of tick bites and allergy level of alpha-gal. Platts-Mills and Commins believe that the allergic reactions are specifically associated with the common Lone Star ticks that are found in a number of plains throughout the U.S. According to ABC News, the Lone Star tick is known for a white spot on its back.

"Presumably something happened with the ticks," explained Platts-Mills in the CNN article. "It could possibly be a new tick spreading."

Both state that the allergy could be linked to bites from tick larvae or baby ticks.

"Perhaps there is an organism in the tick's saliva that makes a person allergic to the alpha-gal sugar in mammalian meat," commented Commins in the CNN article.

The investigators recommend that the easiest way to avoid the allergy is to avoid ticks. Alpha-gal is unique in that patients suffer anaphylactic shock about four to six hours after consuming certain meats. Many who suffer alpha-gal state that they wake up in the middle of the night from anaphylaxis, which can be frightening for them. These symptoms of alpha-gal are part of the first known case of delayed anaphylaxis.

"Intellectually, it's such a cool allergy on so many levels," remarked Dr. Erin McGintee, who has observed cases of alpha-gal in the past in New York, in the CNN article. "It's a sugar, not a protein, and most food allergies occur in response to a protein antigen."

The reactions to alpha-gal can also vary based on the person. Some patients will have a severe reaction, while others will show nothing at all. Doctors recommend that people who are known to be in an environment with Lone Star ticks to be aware of the effects of the allergy.

Furthermore, the only way to avoid the allergy attack is to avoid certain meats that are connected to the allergy.

"There is no current medication to treat food allergies," Commins stated in the CNN article.