It’s enough to strike fear into the hearts of even the most casual steak lover.
While ticks carry a whole host of diseases with them — including debilitating Lyme disease — there’s another side effect that’s spreading: meat allergies.
What causes meat allergies?
A sugar molecule known as Alpha-Gal — short for galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose — causes meat allergies in those who have it and is spread primarily by the Lone Star Tick.
“You’re walking through the woods, and that tick has had a meal of cow blood or mammal blood,” Cosby Stone, an allergy and immunology fellow at Vanderbilt University, told National Geographic. “The tick, carrying Alpha-Gal, bites you and activates your allergy immune system.”
The body responds by creating antibodies that fight Alpha-Gal molecules. Sounds good, until you realize that meat is full of the molecules.
The allergic reactions are often delayed, meaning you won’t realize there’s a problem until hours later. “It [the Alpha-Gal] has to first travel through your gastrointestinal tract to be released,” Stone told the magazine. “Hours later, patients wake up with hives, shortness of breath, vomiting, and diarrhea.”
“Some patients have had to be given life support because their blood pressure is so low that they’re in imminent danger of dying,” he added.
Where does Alpha-Gal come from?
University of Virginia allergy researcher Thomas Platts-Mills started studying Alpha-Gal in 2002 after some people — primarily in the southeastern U.S. — showed an unusual reaction to the cancer drug cetuximab, which contains the same Alpha-Gal molecules as meat. Oddly, other people without cancer in the same region reported meat allergies.
Platts-Mills didn’t connect the dots between meat and Alpha-Gal until he developed the allergy himself after being bitten by ticks. He studied the connection and confirmed the link in a 2011 study. However, he’s still not sure why some people develop the allergy and others don’t.