Tick bites can give you allergies

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COLUMBIA - Pollen is not the only allergen that arrives with the warm summer weather. A specific type of tick can give someone an allergy to red meat. 

The amblyomma americanum, also know as the lone star tick, picks up galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose (alpha-gal) after biting a mammal. When the tick later bites a human, it passes along the alpha-gal, a substance found in all red meats, including beef, pork, lamb and venison. When someone sensitized to alpha-gal eats meat, their immune system views the substance as an invader.

An alpha-gal allergy has various symptoms including hives, respiratory issues, vomiting, diarrhea, increased heart rate, low blood pressure and swollen lips, eyes, tongue and throat. In the worst case scenario, people can go into anaphylactic shock requiring immediate medical attention.

Gregory Lux, allergy and immunology pediatrics for Mercy Clinic in Springfield, said he has diagnosed 20 patients. Mercy Clinic doctors are currently treating about 50 cases of alpha-gal allergy. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doesn't have data on the number of people who have developed the allergy, but Dr. Scott Commins, an associate professor of medicine in the allergy & immunology division at the University of North Carolina, estimates in the areas where the lone star tick is common, 1 to 5 percent will develop the allergy.

Most people bitten by a lone star tick, that develop the allergy and consume meat, might have difficulty associating eating red meat to the allergic reaction since the symptoms are delayed — three to six hours after exposure, compared to minutes for other food allergies. 

"Some just get terrible stomach upset and bad abdominal cramping six hours after eating beef," Commins said during an interview to NBC News. "We are concerned these patients are not coming in to get medical attention." 

Lux said people with an alpha-gal allergy can try to decrease their sensitivity by spending years without consuming meat and avoiding being bit by another tick, even though there is no cure for the sensitivity.  

The Center fo Disease Control and Prevention website has tips on avoiding tick bites. Some of the advices include: 

  • Avoid wooded and brushy areas with high grass and leaf litter.
  • Use repellent that contains 20 percent or more DEET.
  • Bathe or shower as soon as possible after coming indoors.
  • Tumble dry clothes in a dryer on high heat for 10 minutes to kill ticks on dry clothing after you come indoors.
  • Examine gear and pets.

The Missouri Department of Health & Senior Services and the Columbia/Boone County Public Health & Human Services receives data on tick born diseases, but not on alpha-gal allergy.