Alpha-gal Syndrome: What Is the Incurable Meat Allergy Spread by Ticks?

For many Americans, the warmer summer months mean heading outdoors to hike, fish and fire up the barbecue. But experts warn that in some parts of the country this means risking coming into contact with a tick that can cause an incurable meat allergy. 

The culprit is the lone star tick, which can cause alpha-gal syndrome with a single bite. The condition is named after the molecule galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose, which is found in mammals like cows and pigs and spreads when the bug bites an animal and then tucks into a human, mixing their blood. The exact number of Americans with the meat allergy is unknown. However, the condition is not uncommon, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI).

The bug is found predominantly across the Southeast, from Texas to Iowa and into New England, according to ACAAI. And thanks to the warmer climate, experts believe that the tick could be spreading further north.

lonestartick A close up of an adult female deer tick, dog tick, and a lone star tick are shown on June 15, 2001, on the palm of a hand. The lone star tick can trigger an allergic reaction to meat in some. Getty Images

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warns the lone star tick is a “very aggressive tick that bites humans.” The adult females, which along with the younger nymphs are most likely to pass on disease, are distinguished by a white dot or “lone star” on the back.

Symptoms of alpha-gal syndrome range from a runny nose and hives after eating red meat—such as pork and beef— to potentially deadly anaphylactic shock that requires emergency room treatment. Alpha-gal can also trigger stomach problems such as cramps, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, as well as sneezing, headaches, and asthma. And unlike other allergies where symptoms occur immediately,  an alpha-gal reaction can take hours to appear. Medics can diagnose the syndrome with a blood test.

There is no known cure for alpha-gal syndrome, and the effects need to be managed with lifestyle changes such as avoiding meat, taking medicines such as antihistamines and corticosteroids and injecting epinephrine to reverse severe reactions.

Madison Berryhill from Oklahoma City is among those to encounter the lone star tick. She told News9.com that as she spent a lot of time outdoors she was unfazed by tick bites.

But she knew something was up when her hands and feet started itching, turning red and breaking out in hives. After eating a steak, her hives were so severe that she had to visit ER. An allergist was later able to diagnose her with alpha-gal syndrome.

Dr. Lacy Anderson, MD told News9.com that some people with alpha-gal are forced to carry antihistamines in case they have an allergic reaction to meat.

“It’s typically not the type of allergy that would close off the throat, but it’s enough to scare you and make you miserable,” she said.

Ticks are most common between April and September. They lurk in wooded and brushy areas with high grass, which therefore should be avoided, according to CDC. Those who come into contact with high-risk areas should bathe or shower within at least two hours of coming indoors, and check their gear and pets for ticks. Clothes should be tumble-dried on a high heat for 10 minutes to kill any ticks lurking on fabric.

Dr. Anderson recommends using bug spray, both on the skin and clothes, to ward off ticks in areas where lone stars are common. 

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Anthony S. Fauci warned in a statement last year: “Alpha-gal allergy appears to be yet another reason to protect oneself from tick bites.

“Food allergies can range from an inconvenience to a life-threatening condition and pose a serious and growing public health problem that urgently requires more research.”