As spring unfolds and summer follows shortly after, there are many fun outdoor activities to look forward to—one such activity is hiking in the woods. There’s a real reason why hikers wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts while trekking up steep slopes amid the woods despite sweltering temperatures. Spring and summer are the seasons when ticks flourish, and if they latch onto exposed skin, they can wreak havoc on your body. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are currently 16 tickborne diseases in the U.S., one of the most prevalent being Lyme disease, which is transmitted through the black-legged tick, or deer tick.
In recent years, there is another health issue that can arise from a tick bite, known as alpha-gal syndrome. What separates this from other tickborne diseases is that it’s a food allergy, specifically an allergy to red meat. We consulted Dr. Purvi Parikh, an allergist and immunologist with the Allergy & Asthma Network, for more information on how this food allergy develops after a bite, as well as symptoms and ways you can manage it.
How exactly can a tick bite cause an allergy to red meat?
“You can become allergic to red meat when a tick bites an animal such as [a] cow and then bites you, transferring a carbohydrate called alpha-gal into your bloodstream from the animal,” says Parikh. “Your immune system then can develop allergies against this carbohydrate by developing allergy antibodies called IgE. When someone eats the meat again, they can have an allergic reaction as a result.” IgE stands for Immunoglobulin E, which are antibodies produced by the immune system after an allergen is introduced to the body.
The type of tick that transfers alpha-gal is called the Lone Star Tick, which is predominantly found in the Southeastern part of the U.S. However, it’s been spreading to parts of the midwest and even the New England region as well.
“Usually, with this type of allergy, the reaction is delayed as opposed to other food allergies,” she says. “The symptoms are the same, ranging from rash, wheezing, vomiting, dizziness, and loss of consciousness.”
Is the allergy just to red meat or other types of meat, too?
Dr. Parikh says that beef and pork are the two most common forms of red meat. However, you could develop an allergy to any mammal that has the alpha-gal carbohydrate in its blood.
What can be done to treat this allergy, if anything?
To play it safe, Dr. Parikh suggests avoiding meat altogether and carrying around an epinephrine auto-injector to boot.
“Every year we retest to see if the allergy is decreasing and if levels drop to zero of IgE to alpha-gal,” says Parikh. “The good news is this allergy can go away in time with avoidance of meat.”
What’s the best way to prevent getting bitten by a tick?
“Wear clothing that covers all exposed areas if in a tickborne area and use repellant bug sprays,” advises Parikh.
Now you know how a bite from a Lone Star tick can cause an allergy you never thought you would have before. Stay safe this season!
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