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.
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
- Runny nose
- Stomach pain
- Nausea or vomiting
- A drop in blood pressure
- 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.
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.