Imagine eating a juicy steak only to start breaking out into hives and having difficulty breathing a few hours later. Or imagine eating a bowl of Jello (that contains gelatin) and having the same reaction. For roughly 1500 people, mostly in the South, this is a reality as they suffer from a severe allergic reaction to meat. Doctors and scientists believe that this allergy may be caused by the bite of the Lone Start tick and it could be on the rise.
The condition, called alpha-gal allergy, is believed to be caused by the bite of a Lone Star tick. This species of tick is generally found in the Southern United States, but has been moving north in recent years, possibly due to increased numbers in the deer population which has also increased the incidences of Lyme Disease and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. Doctors aren’t completely certain how the tick causes alpha-gal. The connection between ticks and the allergy was first discovered by researchers looking into allergic reactions to the cancer drug cetuximab by researchers Thomas Platts-Mills and Scott Commins at the University of Virginia Health System. What they discovered was that Immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies in patients allergic to cetuximab were reacting with a sugar called alpha-gal and that while all patients produce these antibodies it was only patients from the southeastern United States who had severe reactions. The southeastern United States was also where most tick-borne illnesses were coming out of.
Alpha-gal is a major component of cetuximab but the most common source is non-primate mamals. Humans don’t make the sugar, but it is found in pigs, sheep and cows. Most people have no reaction to eating livestock and the people showing symptoms of the allergy aren’t born with it–they develop it later in life following bites from the Lone Star tick. Though they’ve identified where the allergy comes from, Commins and Platts-Mills say that many questions remain, specifically those in relation to why it takes so long for an allergy symptom to occur and if all Lone Star ticks are carriers. Even as they continue to look for answers the geographical area of the Lone Star tick increases, thus increasing the threat of the allergy.
There is some good news, though. The allergy resulting from the tick bite appears to be temporary, lasting from a few months to a few years. Temporary, that is, so long as you don’t get bitten again.