Tick bites can cause all sorts of nasty afflictions. And if you’re bitten by a Lone Star tick, here’s one more to add to the list: a red meat allergy.
Laura Stirling, 51, a Realtor who lives in Severna Park, Md., was diagnosed with the allergy last year. She got a tick bite while walking on a trail with her dog, Gunner, near her home.
“I found [the tick] 3 or 4 inches to the left of my hip bone,” Stirling recalls. At the time, she say, she didn’t think much of it. “I just took it off and threw it away.”
Then, three weeks later, after she ate an Italian-style pork sausage for dinner, she had a horrible reaction. The reaction began about six hours after her meal, which is typical of this allergy.
“It was the middle of the night. I woke up covered in hives,” Stirling recalls. She woke her husband with all her itching and scratching. She felt lightheaded, and she experienced stomachaches and other gastrointestinal troubles.
An allergist gave her a blood test to check for an alpha-gal meat allergy. When the test came back positive, she was told to avoid all red meat, including beef, pork and lamb. Some people who develop the allergy can no longer tolerate dairy products.
Stirling was surprised when she first got the news. “I thought it was completely crazy, because I’ve eaten dairy and red meat all my life,” she says. But she quickly realized the diagnosis was spot on. Meat and dairy did trigger her symptoms.
“Her story is really interesting,” says Dr. Scott Commins, an allergist and associate professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He says it is a meat allergy, but about 15 to 20 percent of patients with the alpha-gal allergy also report getting symptoms from dairy, especially high-fat dairy such as ice cream.
About 10 years ago, Commins was among the first physicians to identify the allergy in patients with tick bites. Back then, there were just a few dozen known cases.
That has increased dramatically. “We’re confident the number is over 5,000 [cases], and that’s in the U.S. alone,” Commins says. There are also cases in Sweden, Germany and Australia — likely linked to other species of ticks.