Woman, doctor warn about meat allergy from tick bite

Published: Jun. 29, 2019 at 3:34 PM CDT
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Tick bites are more common in the summer months, but a particular bite could cause a severe allergy to mammal meat, like beef, pork and venison.

Four years ago, Kristie Downen was dealing with a tooth infection when she noticed a tick bite.

“Food started hurting. It got to the point where my stomach would swell up, I was vomiting…but thinking it’s a bad tooth infection, nothing of it,” she said.

After several misdiagnoses, a test this year proved Downen has alpha-gal syndrome, an tick-borne allergy she’d never heard of.

“It was the last thing on my mind,” Downen said. “It’s still unbelievable that a tick would make you allergic to food.”

Dr. Minh-Thu Le, an allergist-immunologist at CoxHeath, explained how the Lone Star Tick transfers the allergy to humans.

“Lots of ticks are on cattle. They picked up the alpha gal from the cattle, transfer it to humans,” Le said. “When you eat cow’s meat, beef, pork or whatever else, then that’s when the alpha gal comes into your system and then you react to it.”

Alpha gal makes you allergic to all mammal meat. In Downen’s case, a whole list of things. She said her immune system was already compromised from her tooth infection, so the alpha-gal syndrome took a toll on her.

“Not only can I not eat meat, my body is stuck in overdrive. I’m basically allergic to everything I eat,” she said.

Dr. Le says alpha-gal is hard to diagnosis, because symptoms aren’t always the same and they can take hours to show themselves.

“We’ve seen that usually hives is one of the more common presenting factors, but also abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea, anaphylaxis full blown, so can’t breathe,” Le said.

According to Le, researchers now say chiggers might carry the allergy, too. Le said it’s important to use bug spray and be careful outside.

“Wearing long sleeves, long pants, especially if you know you’re going hunting or things like that,” she said.

If you notice a pattern of symptoms, get tested.

“If you’ve been bit this many times by a tick maybe you need to go get this alpha-gal thing, just to double check, just to make sure,” Downen said.

Le said alpha-gal syndrome is more common in adults but is increasing in children.

For those who have alpha-gal or another food allergy, carrying an epi pen is necessary. She said, if someone who already has the allergy avoids another bite, they can typically “outgrow” it.