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Health Team

UNC researcher responsible for discovering allergy linked to tick bites

Posted April 7, 2016 5:30 p.m. EDT
Updated April 7, 2016 5:57 p.m. EDT

— Many people develop a severe allergy to red meat, but it's a process that can take months or even years to diagnose.

Identifying the allergy, which is called Alpha-Gal, can now be done through a simple blood test thanks to the research of a doctor who now works at UNC Hospitals.

Jeff Charles, 64, started noticing issues after a tick bite in 1999.

"I remember it. It's the worst tick bite I've ever had," he said.

The bite caused a big red rash, but Charles never linked those symptoms to allergic reactions he had a year later.

"We went to an emergency room, and it was so bad they had to give me intravenous adrenaline," he said.

After several similar experiences, Charles began keeping a food journal that helped him narrow his allergies down. It ended up being a delayed reaction to beef.

The specific allergy was actually to a type of sugar in the fat of all lower mammalian meat called Alpha-Gal.

UNC allergist and immunologist Scott Commins said any type of red meat, such as beef, pork or lamb, would contain Alpha-Gal.

Commins was one of the first physicians to study the allergy and its connection to tick bites. Seven years ago, Lone Star ticks, which are mainly found in the Southeast, were thought to be the lone carrier.

"It turns out that this delayed reaction is something that is being dealt with globally," Commins said.

Larval ticks can also be carriers, but their small size make them difficult to see.

Commins says a simple blood test or intradermal skin test can detect the allergy.

Charles says he thinks doctors have become more aware of the issue. He cut out red meat and eats only poultry, fish and more vegetables.

"It's a much healthier diet, I think," he said.

Commins says using bug repellents and other avoidance measures are the best way to protect from tick bites and other potential issues from insect-borne disease.