Tick bite may trigger severe meat allergy

People living in tick-endemic areas around the world are being warned of an increasingly prevalent, potentially life-threatening side effect to being bitten: developing a severe allergy to meat[1]. Sudden onset meat allergies (officially called Alpha-gal allergy) are exceedingly rare in adults who have never been bitten by ticks. Alpha gal is a sugar, present in beef and pork (as well as the meat of all other mammals that are not primates).
Sufferers of 'tick-induced mammalian meat allergy' will experience a delayed reaction of between two and eight hours after eating red meat. Some immune systems are sensitive to proteins in the parasite’s saliva and become intolerant of red meat and, in some cases, derivatives such as dairy and gelatine. Poultry and seafood can still be tolerated. Symptoms include severe whole-body itching, hives, angioedema, gastrointestinal upset and possible fatal anaphylaxis.

Cases of the allergy have been increasingly reported in Europe, Asia, Central America and Africa, but it is most prevalent – and on the rise – in parts of Australia and the United States. Some Australian doctors now diagnose one to two patients every week.

Due to the role of cofactors like exercise, alcohol consumption and other medication in allergic reactions, and the risk of death that comes with anaphylaxis, many often follow vegetarian or vegan diets. Sufferers are also advised to prepare their food at home, as fish and poultry are often combined with mammalian meat products such as stock, and to avoid cross-contamination between utensils and cooking surfaces.

[1] Van Nunen et al: An association between tick bite reactions and red meat allergy in humans in Medical Journal of Australia – 2009

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