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Health Team

Tick bite leads to food allergy for Durham woman

Posted July 7

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— 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.

17 Comments

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  • froggygirl Jul 7, 6:05 p.m.

    Get the word out! This allergy is only recently becoming known. Much like peanut allergies and similar allergies, cross-contamination is a major threat. Do you know if that restaurant cooked chicken and beef on the same grill? It could be life-threatening. This problem is a life-changer for sure, and it most affects hunters and others who enjoy the outdoors, ironically.

  • issymayake Jul 7, 6:19 p.m.

    I know someone who this has happened to as well. The tick population is being carried across the east coast by migrating deer. If you live in a grassy/wooded area or have pets, make sure to protect yourself.

  • "Screen Name-8/20" Jul 7, 6:42 p.m.

    Good grief!!! Another tick thing to worry about. smh

  • sidecutter Jul 7, 7:11 p.m.

    My mother lives in Durham and the same thing happened to her. It has affected her diet drastically. Her only exposure was working in the yard.

  • Drifter Jul 7, 7:24 p.m.

    NOPE NOPE NOPE NOPE!

  • "Screen Name-8/20" Jul 7, 7:27 p.m.

    Geez, just what we all need - another thing to worry about.
    Prayers for all out there dealing with this.

  • diverchick1041 Jul 8, 8:04 a.m.

    My brother and I are both allergic to meat but it's only to red meat and is due to a tick bite. We both break out in hives and have to keep Benadryl with us at all times.....Something interesting though is that we can eat ORGANIC red meat and we don't have the reaction....

  • sidecutter Jul 8, 8:31 a.m.

    "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.

  • harleygrrlnc Jul 8, 8:52 a.m.

    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.

  • harleygrrlnc Jul 8, 9:34 a.m.

    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!

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