Fear of Lyme disease has many of us checking for ticks after a day outdoors. But if you love meat, you may have a whole new reason to be concerned. Cases of alpha-gal syndrome (AGS) – which causes an allergic reaction to meat, including hives, stomach issues or even in extreme cases anaphylaxis – are on the rise.
The culprit? The lone star tick – a once rare variety from the eastern United States that’s now been found as far north as Maine.
Alpha-gal syndrome causes an inflammatory reaction in humans.
When a person is bitten by an infected tick, alpha-gal sugars are transferred through saliva that cause an inflammatory reaction.
“The ticks cause an antibody reaction to alpha-gal sugars that are found in meat from mammals,” explains Andrew Wong, MD, primary care provider for the Hartford HealthCare Medical Group in Westport. “Cases of alpha-gal syndrome have doubled in recent years.”
But many more people may have alpha-gal syndrome and not know it.
The CDC estimates that around half a million Americans suffer from alpha-gal syndrome, and many don’t know it.
The reason? The symptoms can be very subtle and many people attribute them to food poisoning or even conditions like irritable bowel syndrome, Dr. Wong says.
“This is not a bacterial disease. It’s more like an allergic reaction, but one we have a hard time identifying because of the delay in symptoms after the meat is eaten,” he says.
Another reason Dr. Wong believes it’s underdiagnosed is because many providers, especially in the Northeast, are not familiar with the increasingly common condition.
Symptoms of alpha-gal range from mild to severe.
Alpha-gal can cause a wide range of symptoms and may include:
- Mild symptoms include feeling itchy and developing hives.
- Severe symptoms involve the gastrointestinal system, including intense abdominal cramps and heartburn.
- Extreme symptoms include anaphylaxis, lowered blood pressure, shortness of breath and angioedema (swelling in the face and throat).
“Different people react differently and some who have the antibodies in their system will have no symptoms at all after eating meat containing alpha-gal,” Dr. Wong continues.
For most people, the symptoms are only temporary. They are triggered by eating the alpha-gal sugars and go away once those are digested, Dr. Wong says.
When it’s time to see a doctor.
If you’re concerned you may have alpha-gal syndrome, your primary care provider can help.
Diagnosis is done through a blood test that reveals whether you have the antibodies in your system.
Although there’s no treatment for alpha-gal, eliminating meat and other byproducts like dairy and gelatin can help avoid triggering an attack, Dr. Wong says. Certain medications may also contain alpha-gal sugars.
Tick prevention is key.
To avoid alpha-gal syndrome or any tick-borne diseases, Dr. Wong suggests using repellent that contains DEET or permethrin when you go outside.
If you do spot a tick, remove it as quickly as possible to avoid infection and inflammation.