MensHealth When you think tick bite, the first concern that probably pops to mind is Lyme disease. And it’s well-founded: About 300,000 people are diagnosed with the tickborne illness each year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates. But it’s not the only problem that can pop up from a tick bite. Reports of people developing an allergy to red meat after getting bit by a tick are spreading. But is that just an urban legend, or can it really happen? Turns out, science has backed the link, though it is rare. Back in 2011, researchers from the University of Virginia published a paper that found people’s levels of an antibody called alpha-gal spiked 20-fold after they were bitten by the lone star tick. Lone star ticks—which don’t transmit Lyme—have been increasing over the the past 30 years, and now have been recorded as far north as Maine and as far west as central Texas and Oklahoma. So more ticks can potential mean more cases of the meat allergy popping up. Alpha-gal is transmitted through something in the tick’s bite—and the same substance is also present in beef and pork, says study author Scott Commins, M.D., Ph.D. So when you eat a burger, your antibodies bind to the compound in the meat, which can trigger the allergic reaction in some unlucky people who get bit. The scientists aren’t sure why some people get the response and others don’t. “Certainly not everyone goes on to develop a meat allergy,” Commins says. For the unlucky folks susceptible to it, the meat allergy symptoms can seem kind of similar to what you’d experience with other food allergies. (Find out why you should never use peppermint oil to remove a tick.) “You can get anything from hives to a full-blown anaphylactic reaction (a potentially life-threatening allergic reaction),” says Erin McGintee, M.D., an allergist at ENT and Allergy Associates in East Hampton, New York, who has treated cases of it. But unlike other food allergies, this one also has a strong gastrointestinal component, with many patients complaining of abdominal pain or diarrhea in addition to—or sometimes in place of—the itching. Also different: an unusually long delay from when you masticate the meat to when your body rebels. Symptoms tend to crop up three to six hours later, says Dr. Commins, making it difficult to pinpoint the cause of your reaction. That may be because fat in the meat is absorbed more slowly than protein or carbs, so it takes longer for the allergen to reach your blood stream. The good news, though, is it doesn’t seem like you’d need to permanently exile red meat from your diet. “It doesn’t appear to be a lifelong thing,” says Dr. Commins. He and his colleagues tracked several patients where the allergy has essentially faded and gone away. If you get bitten again, the allergy can flare back up in full force. The best thing you can do is protect yourself from ticks when you go outside, especially in wooded areas. That means spraying your skin with a DEET insect repellant and treating your clothing with permethrin, a pesticide that keeps the bugs away from material, says Dr. McGintee. (Find a tick on you? This is the best way to remove it.) And if you do get bitten, be on the lookout for this early clue that you may develop the allergy: bites that stay inflamed and itchy for one to three weeks, says Dr. Commins. Sound like you after a summer outdoors? Ask your doctor for a blood test to check for alpha-gal antibodies. If they’re detected, you may be asked to avoid red meat—which can help you avoid a scary allergic reaction.
I was at a summer BBQ yesterday, and I was shocked and horrified to learn that the bite of a certain tick can cause you to become allergic to red meat, so since I was in disbelief I had to do some research today. It turns out it’s true, The bite of the Lone Star Tick (also known as the Turkey Tick or the Northeastern Water Tick), which is indigenous to the eastern United States, can indeed make you allergic to red meat. The Lone Star Tick is easily identifiable by a white star-shaped spot on its shell, its bite is painless and it can easily go unnoticed, remaining attached to its host for up to seven days until it’s fully engorged with blood. The Lone Star Tick carries a carbohydrate which can transfer the Alpha-gal allergy, which causes a person to break out in hives and whole body itching, after they consume the meat of mammals. Contrary to popular belief, the Alpha-gal allergy does not force you to become a vegetarian, as fish and poultry do not trigger the reaction. The good news is, the alpha-gal allergy usually recedes with time, but this can take anywhere from eight months to five years. As a person that spends a lot of time on the grill, and eats copious amounts of red meat, getting bitten by the Lone Star Tick could cause me to jump off a bridge because I do not want to live in a world in which I cannot eat red meat. Fish and poultry only? Goodbye cruel world.