Alpha-gal syndrome is a serious allergy to red meat caused by the lone-star tick.
The number of reported cases of alpha-gal syndrome has risen dramatically since 2009.
Alpha-gal syndrome isn't curable, but you can protect yourself from tick bites.
Spending time outdoors may be great for your health, but for some people it can lead to a rare health condition: an allergy to red meat. The cause is the lone-star tick: One bite from this quarter-inch-long tick can result in an allergy to red meat — and sometimes meat byproducts like dairy — that lasts for years. And a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, published Thursday, has found the number of people affected is skyrocketing.
One bite could make you allergic to meat
Lone-star ticks roam throughout the eastern half of the United States, from Florida all the way up to Maine. Lone-star ticks lust for blood, and when they bite humans they sometimes inject alpha-gal, a sugar also found in meat, into the bloodstream of their prey. For some people, this revs up their immune system and can lead to an allergic reaction when they subsequently eat meat or products that contain alpha-gal.
Some common symptoms of the tick-borne allergy, called alpha-gal syndrome, are a tight neck and shoulders, erratic heartbeat, and trouble breathing after eating meat. Other symptoms include extreme nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting after eating meat.
Many people experience an itchy red spot where they were bitten, said Dr. Scott Commins, a doctor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who's a coauthor of the recent CDC report.
What's also strange, Commins said, is that there's a delay between eating meat and experiencing symptoms. Someone could eat a burger for dinner at, say, 8 p.m. and not experience an upset stomach until 8 the following morning.
The condition doesn't just affect meat-eaters. "Products from or ingredients from these animals are used in so much of our daily lives, like medications and vaccinations, surgical grafts, gelatin that may be in like gummies — it's very different than just, like, don't eat red meat," Commins told Insider.
There's no cure for alpha-gal syndrome, but it often resolves in three to five years — should the person go without any more bites from lone-star ticks. Management for alpha-gal syndrome is similar to other severe allergies and includes avoiding affected foods and carrying an EpiPen. Some scientists have even started sending lab-made bacon to people with the allergy, Insider previously reported.
Once rare, alpha-gal syndrome is on the rise
In 2009, only two dozen cases of alpha-gal syndrome were identified, but by 2018 that number had risen to 34,000 cases. In the new CDC report, experts found that number has now more than tripled — and they estimate that as many as 450,000 people may have been affected since 2010.
"I'm seeing eight to 10 new patients a week still, and these are people who have had reactions and developed it all within the past couple of years, if not couple of months," Commins said.
The rise is "absolutely concerning" to researchers and doctors, said Commins, who said these numbers were "just the tip of the iceberg." These numbers represent only the number of people who have been confirmed through testing, he said; they wouldn't count anyone who might've stopped eating meat because it made them feel bad but never tested.
Alpha-gal syndrome is still relatively unheard of, so part of the rise in cases could be because people are more aware of the allergy. Additionally, the lone-star tick's range is increasing because of warmer temperatures brought on by the climate crisis.
Stay safe from ticks
The effects of the condition can be distressing, Commins said, because unlike a peanut allergy developed as a child, who may not know the taste and won't miss it, alpha-gal syndrome often affects people who really like meat.
"I even had a patient who said he feels less Southern because he can't eat barbecue," Commins said.
Though there is no cure for alpha-gal syndrome, general tick precautions can help prevent tick bites.
The CDC recommends avoiding grassy, brushy, and wooded areas where ticks can be found, wearing clothing treated with permethrin, and using Environmental Protection Agency-registered insect repellents. Additionally, you should always check your clothing for ticks and perform a thorough check after coming in from the outdoors. If you have pets, check them as well after they return from the outdoors, because pets can bring ticks into the house and onto you.
Read the original article on Insider