Most people know that Lyme disease can cause a whole host of problems, both physical and emotional. Its symptoms can range from joint pain and extreme fatigue to depression and difficulty sleeping. If the condition has progressed into a chronic stage, more severe and more debilitating symptoms can occur. But did you know that Lyme disease can actually cause you to have an allergic reaction to red meat? This allergy has recently been researched further and the medical community is starting to understand more about this odd reaction. If you’ve ever had the question ‘Can Lyme disease make you allergic to red meat?’, keep reading for all you need to know.
What is Lyme disease?
Lyme disease is an infectious condition caused most commonly by tick bites. Patients with Lyme disease often experience the aforementioned symptoms (along with many others), which can often significantly impact their day-to-day functioning. Immediate medical intervention is needed in order to avoid chronic symptoms. Treatment most often includes courses of antibiotics. In recent years, additional research has been conducted in order to try to better understand Lyme disease (including how people contract it and what the best ways are to diagnose and treat it).
What is the alpha-gal allergy?
An alpha-gal is a sugar molecule found in most mammals that we eat, including red meat. It’s not normally found in fish, reptiles or birds. Alpha-gal has also been found in certain products made from mammals, such as some medications, cosmetics, vaccines, gelatine and milk products. An alpha-gal allergy is an allergy to this specific sugar molecule. Allergic reactions occur when people eat meat that has alpha-gal.
Tick bites and red meat allergy come together because scientists are beginning to suspect that ticks can cause this alpha-gal allergy. Researchers aren’t absolutely sure why tick bites cause this allergy, since only some people who are bitten will develop the antibodies that show a possible alpha-gal allergy – and even of that group of people, some still won’t ever experience a full allergic reaction to red meat.
Alpha-gal allergies differ from other food allergies because the allergic reaction doesn’t begin immediately after consuming the food. While other food allergies cause immediate, severe reactions, a person might not experience an alpha-gal reaction until several hours after eating red meat.
Which ticks cause an alpha-gal allergy?
Rickettsia and red meat allergies possibly go hand in hand, because rickettsial diseases are primarily spread by ticks. At this time, scientists have done the most in-depth research surrounding the lone star tick and red meat allergy; these ticks are most commonly found in the southern and eastern parts of the United States. But, as with most tick populations (due to climate change and several other forces), the geographic range of the lone star tick has been expanding.
Scientists aren’t entirely clear at this time if other tick populations also cause red meat allergies. Additionally, more research needs to be conducted to see how common the alpha-gal allergy is in other parts of the world, but scientists in Europe have seen cases that do demonstrate the connection between tick bites and a red meat allergy. Therefore, it’s quite possible to develop an alpha-gal allergy after a tick bite no matter where you live.
What symptoms should you look out for?
If you’ve been bitten by a tick, you should look out for signs of anaphylaxis (which is an allergic reaction). Early signs can include:
- A metallic taste in your mouth
- Burning, tingling or itching of your tongue or mouth
- Feelings of fear and/or confusion
If your allergic reaction progresses, you could start to experience throat swelling, difficulty breathing, vomiting, diarrhoea and other symptoms. It’s crucial if you think you’re in anaphylaxis to immediately call the emergency line for whatever country you’re in to get urgent help.
If you’ve had an allergic reaction before, and you’re having trouble breathing, are wheezing, or feel your throat swelling, you should use an epinephrine auto-injector if you have it. This is typically the kind of treatment you’ll receive from emergency services as well. If you suspect you might have an alpha-gal allergy, talk to your doctor about this possibility (although not all doctors will be aware of this type of allergy, so you might have to do a little explaining). Anaphylaxis can be fatal in some rare cases, so it’s crucial to act urgently to get medical attention.
Is there a cure for an alpha-gal allergy?
At this time, there is no cure for a red meat allergy. This means that after you’re diagnosed, you’ll have to avoid any foods that trigger an allergic reaction, including various types of red meat. Some people find they’re even sensitive to other items that include alpha-gal, like dairy products, sweets with gelatine in them, or medications derived from animal by-products. Some doctors believe that if people can avoid all future tick bites, their levels of antibodies to alpha-gal may lessen, and their allergy could go away. However, it’s not known how possible this actually is within the general public.
How can I protect myself from tick bites?
In order to do your best to not develop an allergy to red meat, you should do all you can to avoid getting bitten by a tick. This means you should:
- Wear protective clothing (such as long-sleeved shirts, trousers, closed-toe shoes etc.) whenever you’re out in nature
- Stick to clearly marked paths when you go for hikes or walks near forests or wooded areas
- Protect your home by eliminating tick hangouts (overgrown grass or shrubs, wood or leaf piles, etc.)
- Use a tick-repellent on your clothes or on any exposed skin
- Do thorough checks of your skin anytime you come back inside after being outdoors; quickly remove any ticks that might have attached to you.
If you suspect you’ve been bitten by a tick, make sure to head to your doctor and get tested for Lyme disease right away. It’s also a good idea to talk with them about a possible alpha-gal allergy so that you know what steps to take to avoid anaphylaxis.
Because tick bites are the cause of both Lyme disease and potential alpha-gal allergies, there is a connection between the two. More research is needed to fully understand what is at play in causing red meat allergies from tick bites, but your best bet is to do everything you can to avoid getting bitten by ticks in the first place. Stay protected and you just might be able to avoid developing a red meat allergy altogether.