CBS Local — Most severe allergic reactions to food occur within 20 minutes of exposure. But the reaction to red meat after a lone star tick bite is much different.
The lone star tick, which can trigger a life-threatening allergy to mammalian meat like beef, pork and lamb, is spreading far beyond where it originated in the southeastern U.S., scientists say.
The tick’s bite generates an allergy to a sugar molecule in red meat known as alpha-galactose, or “alpha-gal,” and can spark a life-threatening reaction with just a single bite of red meat, Business Insider reported.
“The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions,” said Dr. Ronald Saff, an allergist and assistant clinical professor of medicine at Florida State University College of Medicine, to Business Insider.
The allergy’s symptoms include hives and shortness of breath, along with the possibility of an anaphylactic reaction, Saff said.
“They’re sleeping and they have no idea what they could be allergic to because the symptoms occurred so many hours after going to bed,” Saff said.
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“Then, they wake up maybe 1, 2 in the morning with this horrible feeling that they’re flushed, they have throat closure, wheezing, and then they get abdominal cramping, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea,” said Dr. James DeAngelo, of Allergy and Clinical Immunology Associates in the South Hills of Pittsburgh.
The lone star tick bites humans of all ages and tends to be “quite aggressive,” according to the CDC. The tick has also been known to target cats and dogs.
The tick species is most present in the southeastern U.S., but lately has been spreading north up the East Coast and into the Midwest. Large numbers have been reported as far as Maine, and alpha-gal allergy outbreaks have been reported in Minnesota, New Hampshire, and the tip of Long Island, N.Y.
The latest map from the CDC of the spread includes Pennsylvania.
“The lone star tick has not been a major factor in this area up until now, but it is migrating,” said Dr. DeAngelo.
And while cases in the state are still rare, Dr. DeAngelo says he has seen a few.
“I’ve had at least three patients I’ve confirmed having this,” he said.
Bite victims’ sensitivity to the alpha-gal compound found in meat from mammals varies per person. Some are able to tolerate small amounts of red meat, but others are so allergic that they cannot consume dairy products.
There is no known cure for the alpha-gal allergy, so bite victims may be forced to drastically alter their diets for their own safety.
Scientists are currently researching whether the lone star tick is the only species to carry the alpha-gal allergy, or if other tick species do as well.
“We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northwards and westward and cause more problems than they’re already causing,” Saff said.