Alpha-Gal Syndrome: Everything You Need To Know About This Tick-Related Meat Allergy

Alpha-gal, more formally known as galactose-a-1 and 3-galactose, is a type of sugar molecule. It is found in most mammals but not fish, reptiles, birds, or people. Humans may consume alpha-gal if they are meat eaters, as the molecule is found in pork, beef, rabbit, lamb, and venison. It is also found in animal products such as milk products and gelatin.

However, the molecule seldom makes it into the human bloodstream through food consumption. Because of this, the molecule typically causes no harm to those that consume it. If a person is bitten by a tick, though, they can develop an allergy to alpha-gal, leading to something called alpha-gal syndrome. While the allergy isn’t always severe, it can lead to serious allergic reactions in some. Read on to learn all you need to know about this potential tick-related meat allergy.

What causes alpha-gal syndrome?

Ticks are rampant in the United States and carry many tick-borne diseases, such as Lyme disease. When a person gets fed on by a tick, the tick can transmit the alpha-gal sugar molecule into their bloodstream. While the syndrome isn’t strictly considered a tick-borne disease like Lyme disease, it is caused by a bite.

Not everyone who comes into contact with the molecule will wind up having problems, but in some, the immune system reacts to alpha-gal and begins an allergic reaction. Once the molecule is in the body, the next time a person eats meat, they may experience symptoms.

The culprit most responsible for this is the Lone Star tick. This type of tick is found mainly in the southeastern states but can also be found in both the eastern and south-central areas of the country. As Lone Star ticks travel throughout the country on deer and other animals, they begin to spread, and thus, so does the risk of contracting alpha-gal syndrome.

Image by Usman Yousaf on Unsplash: Is alpha-gal related to Lyme disease?

What are the signs and symptoms of alpha-gal syndrome?

Allergic reactions that occur because of alpha-gal syndrome can range from mild to severe. It is difficult to determine who will develop the syndrome and how bad their symptoms will be if they do. Symptoms are almost the same as with other food allergies; however, they tend to take longer to develop, and the onset of symptoms can range anywhere from two to six hours after eating a meat product following the tick bite. 

Signs and symptoms can include:

  • Hives, itchy skin, and/or scaly skin
  • Swelling of the tongue, throat, lips, face, or other areas of the body
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing
  • Runny nose
  • Stomach pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Headaches
  • A drop in blood pressure
  • Dizziness
  • Fainting
  • Anaphylaxis – a severe allergic reaction that causes the throat to close and cuts off a person’s ability to breathe

Sometimes a person may not have an allergic reaction to meat every time they eat it. This makes alpha-gal syndrome even more challenging to predict.

How is alpha-gal syndrome diagnosed?

Since alpha-gal syndrome presents like a typical food allergy, it can be hard to diagnose without proper medical history. The first step in diagnosing the syndrome is collecting personal background. Doctors do this because it’s hard to determine alpha-gal syndrome without evidence of a tick bite.

There are also tests medical professionals can use to diagnose the condition if they suspect it, such as a blood test. A blood test for alpha-gal syndrome looks for antibodies in the bloodstream made in response to the alpha-gal molecule. A skin test may also be done to check for a meat allergy. This test is a little harder and takes more time because different meats will have to be tested.  

How long does alpha-gal syndrome last? 

Unfortunately, there is no cure for alpha-gal syndrome, and the condition is likely permanent once it develops. In some cases, people may recover from the syndrome after years have passed, but this doesn’t happen to everyone, and it’s hard to predict who will recover and who won’t.

Image by Sam Moghadam Khamseh on Unsplash: How long after a tick bite do you get alpha-gal? This depends on the individual.

What are the treatment options for alpha-gal syndrome?

Because alpha-gal syndrome is incurable, treatment options for the condition are limited. Most people with the disease are simply told to avoid the meat that causes the allergy so they do not have to deal with symptoms. This is especially true for people who have severe or life-threatening allergic reactions.

Avoiding foods with meat products can be difficult because certain foods contain the alpha-gal molecule without it being obvious. For example, gelatin contains alpha-gal, so any products made with gelatin must be avoided to ensure that a person doesn’t experience symptoms. It is essential to read all food labels and call ahead when eating out to ensure that there are options without meat or meat products.

In cases of more severe allergies, a person may be required to carry around an EpiPen in case they come into contact with a product containing alpha-gal. The device ensures that if anaphylaxis occurs, they can attend to severe symptoms while waiting for help to arrive. 

Coping with alpha-gal syndrome isn’t easy, especially if people have enjoyed meat products their whole lives. The best way to avoid alpha-gal syndrome is to protect yourself from tick bites, but if you do develop an allergy, the best thing to do is avoid the foods that set off symptoms and hope that the allergy settles or goes away within two years.

Featured image by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash

pregnant person

Tick-Borne Infections In Pregnancy: Overview & Outcomes

Getting bitten by a tick isn’t always a cause for concern, because not all ticks contain infectious bacteria. However, many do, so if you are bitten, you may be at risk of contracting Lyme disease. Lyme can be debilitating because of the way the bacteria infiltrates the body, hiding out in tissues and causing damage over the long term.

Understandably, when a person is pregnant, they may wonder if getting a tick-borne infection can harm their unborn child. Research has investigated the impact that Lyme disease can have on both the child as well as the person carrying the baby. While the serious repercussions of Lyme disease spreading to the unborn child are rare, there are some things those expecting should be aware of when it comes to tick-borne infections in pregnancy. 

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person hiking through woods in winter

Do Winter Ticks Carry Lyme Disease?

When people think of tick season, they tend to picture warm days spent hiking in the woods. While spring and summer are typically referred to as “tick season,” the truth is that ticks can be active all year round. This is because there are many different types of ticks that thrive in different conditions.

For example: the black-legged tick is mainly thought to be active during the warmer seasons, but can survive in temperatures that are just above freezing. Other types of ticks – mainly the Gulf Cost tick and the Lone Star tick – are also both fairly active in the winter months.

Continue reading “Do Winter Ticks Carry Lyme Disease?”
person hiking in fall

Don’t Let Your Guard Down: Prevalence Of Ticks In Fall

Now that summer is over, many people may be breathing a sigh of relief that tick season is over. But unfortunately, the end of summer does not mean the end of the tick threat – ticks can still live throughout the fall. It’s important not to let your guard down as the season changes, as this may open you up to an increased risk of being bitten by a tick infected with the bacteria that causes Lyme disease.

The fall often leads to a drop in temperature, which may give people a false sense of security since ticks thrive in warmer temperatures. However, in many places, fall temperatures aren’t as low as they need to be for tick populations to die down and become a lesser threat to people living or spending time in wooded areas. So how does fall weather affect tick populations, exactly? And why should you continue to practice safety measures even in the cooler weather? Read on for all you need to know about the prevalence of ticks in fall.

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brown tick on rock

How To Preserve A Tick For Medical Testing

In the summer months, with the warmer weather and longer daylight hours, ticks are out in full swing looking for their next meal. Normally, ticks like to feed on small rodents, cattle animals, and deer; however, if a human happens to make it into their area, they’ll latch on and feed without any issue. The problem is that some ticks carry infectious diseases, such as Lyme disease and Rickettsia.

Taking precautions against being bitten by a tick is the first line of defense against the harmful infections they carry. Wearing light-colored, baggy clothes and wearing a bug spray with DEET are both helpful ways to prevent a bite. However, even the most tick-conscious people can fall victim to these dangerous little creatures. If you do happen to find a tick on you after spending some time in the great outdoors, it’s important that you know how to properly remove the tick, and what to do with it to get it tested for disease.

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