Being bitten by a tick can lead to an allergy to red meat. | Photo via Creative Commons

Sorry, steak and hamburger lovers.

A new study serves as a reminder that a tick bite can lead to an allergy to, of all things, red meat.

The study, involving researchers from the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis, looked back at cases of anaphylaxis — a type of allergic reaction — among patients at a private allergy practice in recent years. The most common culprit in cases with a known cause was the red meat allergy, also known as alpha-gal allergy.

From 2006 to 2016, alpha-gal was the cause of about 33 percent of anaphylaxis cases with a known cause, turning up in 28 of 85 such cases, according to the study published Monday in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.

Of the anaphylaxis cases with a probable cause, alpha-gal was the suspected trigger in about 26 percent of cases.

Insider Louisville interviewed Dr. Wes Sublett, director of clinical research at Family Allergy & Asthma in Louisville, to find out more about the tick-related red meat allergy, which also occurs in this area.

Tell me more about the red meat allergy.

Dr. Wes Sublett | Courtesy of Family Allergy & Asthma

We know that the major risk factor is that if you are bitten by a tick that somewhere between four to six weeks later, there tends to be a percentage of those people who go on to develop this red-meat allergy.

This allergy is recognized within academic and medical circles, but does the general public know about it?

If you had asked me that question 10 years ago, the answer would have been absolutely not. … But I think the general public now has heard about it (because of media coverage).

(Also) because it’s more recognized within the medical community — there’s more people being diagnosed correctly and because of that, someone can usually say, “Hey, I know someone who has this.”

The allergy tends to show up in adults but can affect children as well?

That is correct.

When a reaction occurs, is it usually an emergency in which the person’s throat is closing up and they have to go to the ER, or is it usually more subtle?

Alpha-gal usually does cause anaphylaxis, but not all anaphylaxis is severe, and so because of that, not everybody seeks emergency medical treatment. The majority of our alpha-gal patients tend to have GI symptoms, such as severe abdominal cramping, diarrhea, vomiting, along with cutaneous symptoms like hives or flushing. … It typically happens very much delayed from eating the red meat, so it typically happens (usually 3-6) hours after the fact.

Which meat, typically, is involved?

Anything that comes from beef or lamb, venison or pork.

How do you confirm the diagnosis?

It’s through the use of a blood test. We’re measuring the allergy antibody called IgE (Immunoglobulin E) to alpha-gal.

Is skin testing required too?

No, generally we’re taking a very detailed history to hear about: “OK, what did you eat? What were your symptoms?”

Do affected individuals have to carry an epinephrine auto-injector like people who are allergic to peanuts?

Correct. This is something that is a food allergy, and because of that and the risk of anaphylaxis, all patients should carry an epinephrine auto-injector.

Is there a cure?

Currently, there is no cure. Avoidance is the biggest thing. If you accidentally ingest something that contains (red meat) and you develop symptoms, then you would need to use your epinephrine auto-injector and be monitored in the ER. But there is a percentage of people who go on to spontaneously resolve their allergy to this … through years of avoidance.

Kentucky and Tennessee are among the states where Lone Star Ticks are found. Source: CDC

Is this allergy caused only by the Lone Star Tick?

No, we now know it’s probably from any tick. … It’s really a global phenomenon.

Does the bite leave a distinctive mark such as the bull’s-eye associated with Lyme disease?

A. Not always, but there are reports of people (who get) a large, red, itchy, swollen area at the site of the tick bite that lasts for a couple of weeks, and I know that several people have suggested that if that happens, you should watch those people closely.

(However) plenty of people end up getting bit by ticks and don’t develop that allergy.

What are some good strategies for avoiding tick bites?

If you’re going to be either hunting or hiking or doing prolonged outdoor activity, … wear chemical protection, wear long sleeves, long pants, long shirts and then, obviously, check yourself well (for attached ticks).”

(You also can treat your clothes, boots and gear with products containing permethrin before you go outdoors.)

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Darla Carter
Darla Carter is a hometown girl who recently joined the staff of Insider Louisville to mostly cover health. She previously served as a longtime health and fitness writer for The Courier-Journal, where she also worked for the Metro, Neighborhoods and Features departments. Prior to that, the award-winning journalist wrote for newspapers elsewhere in Kentucky and Tennessee, covering a range of topics, from education to courts. She's a graduate of Western Kentucky University, where she studied journalism and philosophy, and is the proud mom of two young children.