The number of people developing meat and dairy allergies after being bitten by lone star ticks is on the rise, according to new reports.
Across the U.S., more people are reporting a life-threatening acute allergic reaction called anaphylaxis when eating red meat. Researchers have revealed that these cases take place when a pest known as the lone star tick bites humans.
This unique reaction is called the alpha-gal allergy and has been a topic of research for Dr. Scott Commins, an allergist and associate professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Commins first started studying these types of allergies over a decade ago but said that he has noticed a dramatic increase recently.
“We’re confident the number is over 5,000 [cases], and that’s in the U.S. alone,” he said, according to an NPR report Monday.
According to Commins, the cases of alpha-gal may have increased over the years because the range of the tick which has spread. With blood tests and word of mouth, more people are also able to identify what alpha-gal actually is.
Commins explained that alpha-gal is a sugar that cows, pigs, lamb, mice, and squirrels naturally produce. While humans do not make this sugar, their bodies develop an immune response to it.
When a lone star tick feeds on the animals that naturally produce this sugar and then bite a human, this is thought to activate the response that develops into a red meat allergy.
“Whatever the tick is doing, it seems that it’s a very potent awakener for our immune system to produce antibodies, “Commins said. “And in this case, it’s antibodies to this very particular sugar in red meat.”
While the allergist says that these allergies can resolve, people have to avoid being bit again in order for that to happen. Last December, the National Institutes of Health published research about anaphylaxis linked to red meat allergies.
According to the study, the cause of the allergy has been difficult to identify because unlike peanuts and shellfish which cause a reaction 5 to 30 minutes after consumption, reactions to red meat can happen up to six hours after it is eaten. Even though the research clearly links lone star ticks and red meat allergies, the National Institute of Health stated that discoveries still need to be made about why all people that are exposed to similar tick bites do not develop the allergies in the same way.