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Celebrity trainer and super-fit mama Tracy Anderson has always been known as a trendsetter and once again is on the cutting edge of a new trend—except this time it has nothing to do with workouts or yoga pants. She shared that she has alpha-gal syndrome, an allergy to red meat (and sometimes dairy) that's triggered by a tick bite, in a new interview with Health.
Last summer, a few hours after eating ice cream, she became covered in hives and ended up in the hospital being treated for an extreme allergic reaction. Eventually, she was able to connect her symptoms to a tick bite she'd gotten while hiking and was diagnosed with alpha-gal syndrome. But it's not just hikers who need to be worried. Due to exploding tick populations in North America, this tick bite meat allergy is on the rise. While 10 years ago there were maybe a dozen cases, doctors estimate there are now likely more than 5,000 in the U.S. alone, as reported by NPR. Here's what you need to know.
Why Are Tick Bites Causing Meat and Dairy Allergies?
You can blame this strange tick bite meat allergy connection on the Lone Star tick, a type of deer tick identified by the distinctive white spot on the backs of females. When the tick bites an animal and then a human, it may transfer molecules of a carbohydrate found in mammal blood and red meat named galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose, or alpha-gal for short. There's still a lot that scientists don't know about the alpha-gal allergy, but the thinking is that human bodies don't produce alpha-gal but, rather, have an immune response to it. While most people have no problems digesting it in its natural form, when you're bitten by an alpha-gal carrying tick, it seems to trigger some sort of an immune response that makes you sensitive to any food containing it. (Speaking of weird allergies, could you be allergic to your gel manicure?)
Strangely enough, most people won't be affected—including people with type B or AB blood, who are five times less likely to develop the allergy, according to a new research—but for others, this tick bite can trigger this allergic reaction to red meat, including beef, pork, goat, venison, and lamb, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology (ACAAI). In rare cases, like Anderson's, it can also make you allergic to dairy products, such as butter and cheese.
The scary part? You won't know if you're one of the people affected by it until you eat your next steak or hot dog. Symptoms of a meat allergy can be mild, especially at first, with people reporting a stuffy nose, rash, itching, headache, nausea, and tingling after eating meat. With each exposure, your reaction can become more severe, progressing to hives and even anaphylaxis, a severe and life-threatening allergic reaction that can close off your airway and requires immediate medical attention, according to the ACAAI. Symptoms usually start between two and eight hours after eating meat, and the alpha-gal allergy can be diagnosed with a simple blood test.
There is one bright spot, however: Unlike other frustrating or potentially harmful allergies, people seem to outgrow alpha-gal within three to five years.
And before you panic and cancel all your hikes, campouts, and outdoor runs through fields of flowers, know this: Ticks are relatively easy to guard against, says Christina Liscynesky, M.D., an infectious disease specialist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. The first step is knowing your risk. Lone Star ticks are found primarily in the south and east, but their territory seems to be spreading quickly. Check this CDC map regularly to see how active they are in your area. (Take note: Ticks can carry Lyme disease and the Powassan virus, too.)
Then, read up on how to prevent tick bites. For starters, wear tight-fitting clothes that cover all your skin any time you're out in grassy or wooded areas, says Dr. Liscynesky. (Yes, that means tuck your pants into your socks, no matter how dorky it looks!) Ticks can't bite skin they can't find. Wearing light colors can also help you spot the critters faster.
But perhaps the best news is that ticks generally crawl around on your body for up to 24 hours before settling down to bite you (is that good news?!) so your best defense is a good "tick check" after being outdoors. Using either a mirror or a partner, check your whole body—including tick hot spots like your scalp, groin, armpits, and between your toes.
"Check your body for ticks daily when camping or hiking or if you live in a tick-heavy area," she advises—even if you use a good insect repellent. P.S. It's important to put on bug spray or lotion after your sunscreen.
If you find a tick and it hasn't attached yet, simply brush it off and crush it. If you're bitten, use tweezers to remove it ASAP from your skin, making sure to dislodge all mouthparts, says Dr. Liscynesky. "Wash a tick bite site with soap and water and cover with a bandage; no antibiotic ointment required."
If you remove the tick quickly, chances of getting any illness from it are low. If you're not sure how long it's been in your skin or if you start to experience symptoms like a fever, hives, or rash, call your doctor immediately, she says. (Related: Here's What You Need to Know About Chronic Lyme Disease) If you have problems breathing, call 911 or go to the ER right away.