Alpha-gal allergy: Bite from tick found in Hampton Roads can lead to red meat allergy, researchers say


NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — Ticks, they hide out in woody, grassy areas, waiting to find their next meal. Unfortunately for us, humans can often become the host for these biting blood suckers.

Tick bites are nothing new, but since about 2008, researchers have been studying a red meat allergy that comes from a lone star tick bite.

“It became increasingly clear that ticks and tick bites were going to be an explanation for why you could all of a sudden have people who their whole life could eat red meat, or in some cases dairy, and not have any problems,” said Dr. Jeffrey Wilson, an assistant professor of allergy and immunology at the University of Virginia.

Wilson says the tick bite is the sensitizing event. It’s this bite that changes your relationship with a sugar called alpha-gal. He says this sugar is present in meat and dairy.

“All of a sudden you start making a different kind of immune response to this sugar,” he said.

Wilson says it’s usually the lone star tick that causes this. They’re predominately found in the southeastern U.S., including Hampton Roads.

“The adult females have the white dot, the adult males have dots really close to the bottom of their body,” said Dr. Holly Gaff, professor of biological sciences at Old Dominion University.

She says symptoms for this red meat allergy won’t happen right away.

“So when you eat red meat you can have hives, difficulty breathing, or even full anaphylaxis 3-6 hours after consuming red meat,” Gaff said.

Charlottesville resident Amy Lankford knows this allergy all too well.

“Early this season, probably early June, I had a tick which we removed and didn’t really think anything of it,” Lankford said.

Lankford says several weeks later, about three hours after dinner she starting having gastrointestinal issues and would break out in hives.

“I went to see my primary care physician and they ran some blood work and found I have the alpha-gal allergy,” Lankford said. She’s had to cut out both meat and dairy.

Wilson says there is no cure, but for some people if they avoid any more tick bites, the allergic response can possibly dwindle over time. He says it’s really on an individual basis and that’s why he likes to see patients periodically, so they can do a blood test and check antibody levels. He says just based on the clinics they’ve done in Charlottesville, Virginia, and there are over a thousand people in Virginia who have this.

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