Number of Tick Bites Causing Red Meat Allergies on the Rise

Imagine if a burger or steak could land your patient, who has never before experienced problems eating red meat, in the hospital with an allergic reaction. According to recent news reports, doctors  are seeing an increase in sudden meat allergies in people bitten by a certain kind of tick, known as the Lone Star Tick.

A recent AP article explains the ticks “harbor a sugar that humans don’t have, called alpha-gal,” which is found in red meat. A bite from the tick “triggers an immune system response…and makes antibodies to it.”

While the federal government has not yet issued health warnings about meat allergies associated with these ticks and such allergies are rare — only affecting about 1,500 people since it was first reported in 2008 — physicians and patients should still be aware of this rather unusual summertime concern.

“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, MD, an allergist in Pittsburgh. “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,” he said.

Dr. Palumbo also said that often with these patients it takes several reactions until the pieces start to come together.

As another article points out, both patients and physicians “are slow to recognize the risk,” because, according to one allergist, “why would someone think they’re allergic to meat when they’ve been eating it their whole life?”

Dr. Palumbo also points out that there is now a commercially available test to measure alpha-gal antibodies and it should be obtained when this type of reaction is suspected.