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Could tick bites cause red meat allergies?

12 June 2013

A species of tick that causes red meat allergies is becoming increasingly wide spread across Long Island, New York.

Image © Kallista Images/SuperStock Corbis
Image © Kallista Images/SuperStock Corbis

The Lone Star tick contains a substance that makes people react violently to red meat and doctors don't know how long the allergy could last. The tiny tick injects a substance when it bites that causes victims to become allergic to red meat, sometimes violently. 

“It's a huge problem out here,” Erin McGintee, an allergist in East Hampton, New York, told “I've been trying to get the word out.”

Symptoms of the illness range from abdominal cramps to hives, difficulty breathing, anaphylaxis and even death. And they all stem from eating red meat. Though researchers say the symptoms, unlike those from typical food allergies, may take hours to take hold.

Researchers think the bug's bite can inject a sugar called alpha-gal that causes future encounters with the substance, also found in red meat, to trigger an allergic response.
The Lone Star tick was once confined to the ‘tick belt’ of the Southeastern US, but has increasingly been found further into Western and Northern states. Along with the tick, the cases seem to be spreading such as in the Long Island enclave.

McGintee said she currently knows of around 70 cases and sees more every week. However, there continues to be scepticism regarding what exactly causes the reactions. Most allergic reactions are immediate, which means people aren’t always able to identify the cause of their symptoms, much less trace them back to a tick bite that could have occurred been months prior.

Reactions and triggers vary, making diagnosis difficult. Unlike other food allergies, the meat reaction occurs hours after consumption. And the allergy itself may not begin until long after contact with the tick.

Thankfully, contact with the tick can be avoided and scientists think the allergy may fade after years of avoiding subsequent bites.

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