About three years ago, Springs resident Matthew Ross started to have episodes in the middle of the night where he would break out in hives all over his chest, legs and arms.
This happened about six times before Mr. Ross decided to go see an allergist. The medical professional told him that the hives were caused by his dinner, which on those occasions usually included some type of red meat.
Mr. Ross was diagnosed with the alpha-gal allergy, a condition that causes an allergic reaction to specific types of meat. The allergy is transmitted to humans by a bite from the lone star tick, with symptoms occurring three to eight hours after a person eats large servings of fatty mammalian meat.
Dr. Erin McGintee, of ENT and Allergy Associates in Southampton, said researchers don’t believe the allergy is caused by ticks themselves, but rather that there is something in the lone star tick’s saliva that triggers humans to develop the particular antibody that causes allergic reactions.
“In the case of this allergy, patients start developing [Immunoglobulin E] … which is the antibody that’s responsible for allergies, directed at this alpha-gal allergen,” Dr. McGintee said. “We’re not entirely sure how the bites induce the reaction, or produce the development of the allergy.”
The tricky thing about alpha-gal, Dr. McGintee explained, is that not everyone who has developed the allergy knows they have it, unless they eat a particular kind of meat that triggers a number of symptoms, which can include shortness of breath, lightheadedness, gastrointestinal complications, itching and hives. So, a vegetarian, vegan or pescatarian—a person who eats fish but not meat—or someone who refrains from eating red meat would not know if they have developed alpha-gal.
When symptoms do occur, though, the allergist recommends immediately taking at least 100 milligrams of Benadryl, and also to call 911 if experiencing anaphylaxis, which is a life-threatening allergic reaction. Those who are then diagnosed with the allergy by a medical professional are usually prescribed an EpiPen.
“Just because you sometimes tolerate meat, doesn’t mean you don’t have the allergy,” Dr. McGintee said. “Everybody’s threshold is different. It’s tricky.”
Dr. McGintee said that unlike other tick-borne ailments, such as Lyme disease, alpha-gal does not stay with a person forever. The number of times an individual gets a tick bite that produces the meat allergy determines how long it will last, so she said it is important for people to avoid getting tick bites in the first place.
The allergy usually occurs during tick season in the spring, summer and fall. Dr. McGintee said she has seen “a steady rise” in the number of diagnoses at ENT Allergy and Associates, but noted that that could be attributed to more awareness and education about the condition. Since 2010, she has personally treated 288 people with alpha-gal.
“It’s really important to see an allergist if you think you have this allergy,” Dr. McGintee said, adding that people should not self-diagnose. “I think lots of people have it and don’t even know it.”
Mr. Ross, who regularly spends time outdoors kayaking and hiking, has become adamant about staying away from ticks in order to avoid developing alpha-gal again. He has reluctantly stopped eating red meat because the symptoms he would experience were “off the charts,” he said.
“I was a big carnivore, and now I cut back to maybe just chicken and pork,” he said. “I think it’s really hamburger, chopped meat, that affects me. I’ve kind of been in denial about that.”