SUFFOLK, Va. (WAVY) – You’ve probably heard of Lyme disease but how about “alpha-gal syndrome?” They both start with tick bites, but then the effects are very different.

Just ask Yvonne Whitley. She sits outside her home on Sleepy Hole Road, and despite the pleasant temperatures and sunny skies, is buttoned up in long sleeves and pants.

“I’m real scared to death of getting another tick bite,” she said.

Last summer, Whitley did get a tick bite and started noticing a pattern.

“I ate a half of a burger, got home and broke out in hives really bad. Then I broke out again from lotion that I put on that had mammal products in it. And then I broke out again from going to a fair and eating about half of a barbecue.”

Yvonne Whitley (WAVY image)

Her allergist diagnosed her with alpha-gal syndrome. Dr. Eric Karlin says it comes from the Lone Star tick, prevalent in Virginia and the Southeast.

“In alpha-gal disease, patients get bit by the tick and this changes the immune system to develop allergy to mammalian meats,” and Karlin says the condition can be deadly.

“Unfortunately there have been deaths reported in alpha-gal patients. I always recommend to all my patients with alpha-gal to have two epi-pens at all times, just in case they do have an accidental exposure,” he said. “Anything that walks on four legs, you need to avoid.”

Karlin restricts his patients to chicken, turkey and seafood. Whitley has also tried ostrich and emu, which she orders from farms in Tennessee and South Carolina

Unlike other food allergies such as peanut or shellfish, alpha-gal lurks in the background.

“It typically presents with a delayed reaction of anaphylaxis. We tend to see reactions from four to eight hours after ingestion,” Karlin said, and that’s been Whitley’s experience, too.

“So by then, you’ve eaten several things and you can’t pinpoint what it is,” she said.

Whitley uses an app on her phone that searches bar codes for ingredients she needs to avoid.

“It’s called Fig, and when you’re in the grocery store you can scan any type of food.” she said.

Whitley soaks her clothes with a special repellent as another line of defense, as she tries to cope.

“It’s not just a red meat allergy. It’s a life change.”

Whitley and Karlin both urge anyone with these kind of symptoms, which include hives, sweats, heart palpitations and gastro-intestinal problems, to get tested by a registered allergist.

Karlin says over time and through diet, people have been known to outgrow alpha-gal.