Summer calls for lake nights and barbecues outside, but there is a hidden threat to your red meat meals: alpha-gal allergy.

What is alpha-gal allergy?

This term is used to describe an allergy to the carbohydrate molecule galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose that is found in most “red meat”. This allergy is severe and potentially life-threatening. It can cause anaphylaxis. Symptoms relating to ingesting red meat with such allergy may occur 3-8 hours after consumption. This is a delayed response when compared to other food allergies. This delay is due to alpha-gal being a carbohydrate instead of a protein molecule, so absorption requires a longer amount of time.

How Are Ticks and Alpha-Gal Allergy related?

The Lone Star tick and other potential arthropods carry the alpha-gal molecule in their saliva, typically after feeding on mammalian blood. People bitten by a tick with the molecule are at risk of becoming sensitized to it. This will produce a response in the immune system that then causes allergic reactions. These reactions may occur to red meat, subsequent tick bites, and even medications that contain the protein.

The traditional habitat for the Lone Star tick is in the Southeast. Living in the South, it is important to stay alert when outdoors. Wearing long sleeves and pants while in the wilderness can help protect you from tick bites.

Symptoms & Treatment

Alpha-gal allergy is like most food allergies with the same symptoms including:

  • Swelling of lips, face, and/or eyelids
  • Abdominal pain, nausea, diarrhea, and/or vomiting
  • Hives and itching
  • Shortness of breath, coughing, and/or wheezing

Treatment includes long-term avoidance to all red meat. It is important to carry an epinephrine auto-injector to use in cases of accidental exposure. While red meat will have to be avoided, this does not necessarily mean a change to a full vegetarian diet. Poultry and fish can still be consumed without fear of similar reactions.

If you are concerned about alpha-gal or another food allergy and need assistance in treatment then it is important to visit an allergist. To schedule an appointment with an allergist at National Allergy & ENT, please call (843) 797-8162 or schedule online.