What Is Alpha-gal Syndrome?
Alpha-gal syndrome has been recently identified as a type of food allergy to red meat. It is caused by a sugar molecule called alpha-gal, which triggers an immune system reaction that in turn causes allergic reactions to the consumption of red meat. The reactions can range from mild to severe.
Alpha-gal is usually transmitted by a Lone Star tick’s bite.
What Are The Symptoms of Alpha-gal Syndrome?
Compared to other food allergies, the symptoms of the Alpha-Gal Syndrome are often delayed. They may not appear until three to six hours after consuming red meat.
Symptoms of an alpha-gal reaction may include hives or itching, swelling of lips and/or other body parts, shortness of breath, runny nose, sneezing, headaches, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, or diarrhea.
In the case of a severe reaction, the patient may even experience an anaphylaxis shock (a potentially deadly allergic reaction which restricts breathing).
How Does Alpha-gal Syndrome Spread?
Usually, a bite from Lone Star tick causes people to develop this allergy to red meat. The allergy is related to a carbohydrate called alpha-gal, which causes an immune reaction when it enters a human body.
In fact, the tick has been said to be the initiator of the red meat allergy in the US.
Affected Regions In The United States
Most Alpha-Gal Syndrome cases usually occur in and around areas populated by the Lone Star tick, which would be the southeastern United States. However, the condition seems to be spreading farther north and west.
Additionally, the condition has also been diagnosed in certain parts of Asia, Australia, and Europe, where other types of ticks carry the alpha-gal molecules.
How many cases in the United States in 2019?
According to CDC, there is no known estimate of the number cases of Alpha-gal Syndrome. However, the US Department of Health and Human Services tried to nail down the approximate numbers in their Alpha-gal Syndrome Subcommittee Report.
- The triennial 2018 Chatham County Health Assessment reported 862 people out of a total population of 73,139 had AGS in Chatham County NY.
- An allergist, Dr. Erin McGintee of Ear, Nose, Throat and Allergy Associates in Southampton, NY said she has had 530 AGS patients as of August 2019.
- Several local or regional AGS Facebook Support Groups exist in at least sixteen different states in the US as of October 2019. The list of states consists of Arkansas, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Wisconsin.
How To Avoid Alpha-Gal Syndrome And Protect Yourself
The best way to avoid contracting the Alpha-Gal Syndrome is to avoid tick-prone areas. Especially the woods or other brushy areas with long grass.
A few other precautionary measures to avoid ticks are
- Covering yourself up with long sleeves and long pants
- Using insect repellents (buy the Environment Protection Agency-registered repellents)
- Making sure your yard is completely tick-proof
- Checking yourself, your children and pets for ticks (every day in case you live in areas populated by ticks)
- Taking a shower as soon as you come indoors
- Removing a tick as soon as possible with tweezers (try not to crush the tick, pull it by the head and treat the feeding site with some antiseptic afterward)
- Taking precautionary steps to prevent ticks in your yard and on your pets. Follow this guide to check your dog for ticks.
Should I see a doctor?
Consult a doctor, specifically an allergist if you experience any signs of food allergy after eating red meat. Don't dismiss the signs just because they appear several hours after eating.
Pay special attention to symptoms if you live in the southeastern states or any other part of the world that has a history of the Alpha-Gal Syndrome.
You should seek immediate emergency medical treatment if you develop signs of anaphylaxis. It may include difficulty rapid or weak pulse, difficulty in breathing, dizziness, drooling or inability to swallow, full-body redness or flushing.
For more information on other tick-borne diseases and illnesses, read our guide about other common tick diseases in the United States.