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UNC researcher links ticks with meat allergy

A researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was among the first to link a meat allergy with a certain tick.

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Allen Mask
, M.D., Health Team physician

Meat-lovers, beware: A simple tick bite could come between you and your burger.

A researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was among the first to link a meat allergy with a certain tick.

One man suffered severe symptoms for two years before discovering the cause.

Steve Richichi, 54, never let ticks stop him from enjoying the outdoors, he said.

But three years ago, he remembers feeling like a tick magnet.

“I've had, like, three ticks in three months,” Richichi said. “It's weird. They all have this little white dot on them."

It took two years before Richichi linked the tick bites to severe physical reactions several hours after meals.

“I'm having this bizarre abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea, late at night,” Richichi said.

He described his symptoms, which included hives and trouble breathing, to his doctors.

“They would look at me like, ‘You got me stumped,’” Richichi said.

It's the delayed reaction after a meal that often stumps doctors.

“So you eat a cheeseburger for dinner and you don't have any sense of itching or hives for 4 to 5 hours later,” said Dr. Scott Commins, an allergist at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Commins was among a team of researchers who first linked the allergy, called alpha-gal, with bites from lone star ticks.

Adult female lone star ticks have a single white spot, or star, on their backs.

“In the U.S., lone star ticks are the issue, but worldwide, it's other ticks that have been implicated as well,” Commins said.

The allergies have appeared as far away as Australia and Europe as well as throughout the United States. They’re most prevalent in southeastern states like North Carolina.

Dr. Commins said alpha-gal appears on the surface of proteins in non-primate animals.It's primarily beef, pork and lamb that can lead to allergic responses in patients like Richichi.

“I'm pretty much all vegan except a little bit of chicken, a little bit of turkey and fish,” Richichi said.

Keeping a food diary and working more closely with an allergist might have helped him identify the problem and remedies earlier, Richichi said.

“I'd like to say alpha-gal is a life changer, but it's absolutely not a life ender,” he said.

Commins said a simple blood test is available to confirm the alpha-gall allergy in people who have experienced meat allergy symptoms.

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