Tick Bites Have Made Tens of Thousands of Americans Allergic to Meat

A tick bite disease is causing people in the U.S. to become allergic to meat, with tens of thousands of people having contracted Alpha-gal Syndrome (AGS) in the last decade, despite it being virtually unheard of before 2009.

One woman in Georgia was left with an allergy to meat, dairy, soaps, and other products after a tick left her with AGS.

Amy Shea contracted the disease after a Lone Star tick bit her while on an outdoor adventure, CNN reported. The condition has forced Shea to completely restructure her life taking measures such as reading every label on food and product packaging—from soaps to makeup.

The allergy is so severe, that the mere smell of meat from a barbecue or restaurant can send her body into shock. She told the news station: "I took a bite of the roast and about an hour later I started having stomach issues and hives all over my legs. I went to the ER and was in full anaphylactic shock by then.

"The most difficult part is not being able to go out with my family. They all went out to dinner last night and I stayed home."

What is Alpha-gal Syndrome?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), AGS is a severe allergy to a sugar molecule found in the cells of most mammals but not humans and other great apes called galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose, or simply alpha-gal.

The condition which was discovered in 2009 seems to be caused by the bite of Lone Star ticks—an aggressive species of tick usually found in southern states but increasingly spreading to the Midwest and Northeast states.

The Cleveland Clinic says that while AGS is still rare, cases are on the rise in the U.S. The organization said that reported cases of the condition have soared from 24 in 2009 to over 34,000 by 2018.

In a statement, Arnaldo Perez, a doctor at the Cleveland Clinic Florida Department of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, said: "Tick bites are an unusual way to become allergic to a substance. This is a recent association, for sure. It's still somewhat rare, but it's something to be aware of, especially if you're having unexplained allergic reactions."

Lone Star Tick
A stock image of a Lone Star Tick on human skin. Amy Shea from Georgia was left with Alpha-gal Syndrome, an increasingly common life-threatening condition after the bite of a Lone Star Tick. epantha/GETTY

What are the Symptoms of Alpha-gal Syndrome?

The CDC lists the symptoms of AGS, which usually arise two to six hours after eating red meat or dairy products, as including; hives or an itchy rash, nausea or vomiting, coughing and shortness of breath, or difficulty breathing.

Perez said that this delay in symptoms appearing after exposure makes AGS an unusual allergic disorder. Most allergic reactions take just minutes to occur. He explained: "That delay can make it more challenging to make a direct association with what was eaten."

Symptoms, which can also include swelling of the lips, throat, tongue, or eyelids, dizziness, or a drop in blood pressure, may also occur after exposure to non-food products containing alpha-gal like gelatin-coated medications or soaps and cosmetics.

The CDC said that while AGS is most commonly associated with Lone Star Tick bites, species of arachnids that get their names from the distinctive white dot on the back of adult females, bites from other species of ticks have not yet been ruled out as a potential cause.

Perez concludes: "There are other parts of the world where this phenomenon has been identified, and the Lone Star Tick is not there."

Treatment for AGS includes sufferers being advised to avoid meat from mammals. including beef, pork, lamb, and venison as well as products containing lard and gelatin. The Cleveland Clinic says this can include countless medications, personal healthcare items, and household products that may also contain alpha-gal.

Preventing tick bites is key to protecting oneself against AGS and other tick-borne illnesses like Lyme disease, it said.

This means avoiding grassy, brushy, and wooded areas, where ticks may be found, treating clothing and gear with permethrin or buying pre-treated items, and checking clothing and the body for ticks when coming indoors.

The CDC said that if a tick is found, it should be removed immediately with clean, fine-tipped tweezers and that pets and backyards should be treated to remove ticks.