Health Team

Tick bite leads to food allergy for Durham woman

Posted July 7, 2014

— Clare Smith didn’t feel well. Shortly after getting into bed, she began getting a stomach ache, headache, chills and rash. Four hours earlier, she was feeling fine and enjoying a Memorial Day cookout at her boyfriend's home in Chatham County, where she ate a cheeseburger.

She decided to call her doctor’s office to ask about her strange sickness, and that’s when she got her answer.

“I talk to this nurse and she goes, ‘You have this tick allergy that makes you allergic to meat,’” Smith, 57, of Durham, recalled. “And she goes, ‘I have it, and three members of my family have it.’”

Smith says she didn’t remember seeing a tick on her, but she did have a bump on her skin that appeared to be a bite. A blood test confirmed it – she was resistant to Alpha-Gal.

Alpha-Gal is the name of a sugar carbohydrate found in the fat of the meat of mammals, such as beef, pork or lamb. When bitten by an infected tick, people like Smith produce an antibody to Alpha-Gal, which causes the allergic reaction. The carrier is the Lone Star Tick.

Drag a towel through tall grass near a wooded area and Lone Star ticks are likely to appear. The female has a lone white spot on its back, while the male has white lines across the rear edges of his back.

North Carolina State University Veterinarian Dr. Ed Breitschwerdt's research lab specializes in tick-borne organisms. He says ticks often get to humans by way of their pets.

“Healthy pets make for healthy people,” he said.

But not all healthy people react the same way to a tick-borne infection.

“It certainly may be the exception rather than the rule that someone who had an allergic reaction with a Lone Star Tick would go on to develop a meat allergy,” Breitschwerdt said.

Those who do could develop more severe reactions to meat, such as anaphylactic shock causing swelling that makes breathing difficult. The key is preventing contact with ticks altogether, including using tick and insect repellents made for pets and products for humans.

“They should be used routinely when anybody's going into an environment where they'll have tick exposure,” Breitschwerdt said.

As for Smith, she now has to avoid any form of mammalian meat – a big lifestyle change she didn't see coming. She says she knows she was fortunate to have identified the allergy so early. Now, she'll just stick to poultry and fish.

For those who develop a meat allergy as a result of a tick bite, the only treatment is to avoid mammalian meat, according to WRAL Health Team Physician Dr. Allen Mask.

“There are some initial signs that the Alpha-Gal antibody level goes down over time, especially if you are able to avoid additional bites from ticks or chiggers,” Mask said. “You could get re-tested after several months to see if the level of the Alpha-Gal antibody in your blood has decreased. It's important to consult an allergist.”

Mask says it’s important to know that there are other tick-borne diseases, many of which have very similar early symptoms. The bite is often painless, and the tick may drop off before the person sees it, but there will typically be a rash at the area of the bite.

“That's when you should see a doctor about it,” Mask said.

Among the most common diseases are:

  • STARI (Southern Tick-Associated Rash Illness), also carried by the Lone Star Tick
  • Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, potentially fatal if not diagnosed and treated early, carried by the Dog Tick
  • Lyme Disease, known to be carried by the Deer Tick

People infected with Lyme Disease may develop neurological symptoms that mimic muscular sclerosis. Lyme Disease was once considered to be isolated to the northeast of the country and moved down as far as Virginia. Now, veterinarians across the state have reported seeing it appear in northern counties of North Carolina.


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  • lolasandvik Jul 10, 2014

    In 2002 I spent a summer conducting field work at Ft.Bragg. It was then that I experienced my first reaction with hives. I was bitten by ticks on a near daily basis working in brush throughout the summer. When I went to the doctor my symptoms didn't match up with any known allergy so I was sent home with an epi-pen and the declaration that "you're allergic to something". Fast forward twelve years and after a particularly bad reaction where I went into anaphylactic shock I went to the UNC Allergy clinic and right off the bat they knew what was happening. For folks interested in how this allergy was finally recognized here is the journal article
    from UVA affiliated Thomas Platts-Mills, MD who was researching why so many cancer patients in the Southeast were rejecting a cancer drug made with a chimeric mouse/human monoclonal antibody. For folks with the allergy, it seems that the fattier the meat the worse the reaction.

  • notexactly Jul 8, 2014

    View quoted thread

    Dang. I hate that for you. Have you tried to eat any pork? My friend had very low level for pork. He could have started eating pork sooner than beef, but he kept getting tested every six months until his levels for beef were gone. Now he can eat anything. well so far. Hope yours goes away soon. His doctor did tell him some people will take a while to get rid of. Some may never. I hope that is not your case. That's gotta suck. His lasted almost 2 years

  • tbg0519 Jul 8, 2014

    View quoted thread

    Count yourself very lucky. I have had this allergy for 8 years and counting. Occasionally I used to test the waters with very lean beef just to see if the allergy had subsided but no. Having gone 3 years w/o any red meat (accidental or intentional) I'll find out in December if my levels have changed. You have to exercise severe caution when you eat. Pizza places (Domino's, Papa John's, etc) have trays to catch the cheese and other toppings when they make pizzas and they 'clean the pits', putting the fallen toppings back in their places and then dump the cheese back in the bin. They aren't always perfect, and one single piece of red meat can be disasterous. The reaction is about 4 hours later. Mine was while on a plane. Maybe with more exposure like this, we will get more research into a cure.

  • firefalcon100 Jul 8, 2014

    This happened to my wife. Now she cannot eat Beef or Pork products. It was getting better but the last time she ate bacon it caused her to swell.

  • busyb97 Jul 8, 2014

    Oh, and we are in Chatham county. We have friends in Wake (two actually) who have kids who have it also.

  • busyb97 Jul 8, 2014

    My son was just diagnosed with the alpha gal allergy...from a tick bite several weeks before (the only one so far this season) and the tick was only attached for maybe an hour or so? We were doing yard and garden work for awhile. They always strip down and check for ticks before going in and it was in his armpit. A few weeks later, he started having numb/tingling in his mouth. Uh oh. Tests confirmed.
    Now we carry Epipens and benadryl....just on case.

  • notexactly Jul 8, 2014

    in most cases it does go away in time. A friend of mine got it and it lasted for about a year. He can now eat beef and other meats. It does depend on how many other times you get bitten and your own bodies chemistry.

  • harleygrrlnc Jul 8, 2014

    Birds migrate and have ticks. Field mouse spread ticks. Any mammal can get ticks. Ticks like carbon deicide, that is where they hitch a ride, eat, and find another ride to who knows where! It not just deer, thank about that cute bunny in you yard!

  • harleygrrlnc Jul 8, 2014

    After getting Lyme Disease in 1998, I'm allergic to so many things. I have also had STARI. I'm allergic to chemicals, medication, sun, food, odors, and the list is long to name. If you think you have a tick-borne disease, please talk to your doctor about allergies and what you can do for a allergic reaction. It may save your life. One strawberry sent me to the ER. Please be careful. People who don't have problems, please think of us when you must wear perfume to your doctors visit. Doctors office is always a problem for me due to odors and cleaning products. Be careful as you get older, your body does change.

  • sidecutter Jul 8, 2014

    "Issy"- deer do not migrate. Generally they remain with-in 1 mile from where they are born. Their increasing numbers as well as habitat loss is placing them in closer proximity to us humans bringing the ticks with them. Totally de-nude your yard and the ticks will go away.