KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — With the weather warming in East Tennessee, more critters are crawling around the area. One of them is the lone star tick, which can cause people to change how they eat with a single bite.
Lone star tick bites can result in Alpha-gal Syndrome, which is essentially an allergy to red meats, according to entomologists. The tick is found mostly in the southeastern U.S. including East Tennessee. When it bites someone, it introduces a sugar molecule that is also found in most kinds of mammal meats, called Alpha Galactose.
After the sugar molecule is introduced people's bodies can start treating meats as if they were allergens. Reactions to eating meat can include hives, swelling or even anaphylaxis, and some reactions can be delayed for hours after eating the food.
The most common types of meats that trigger reactions are beef, pork, lamb, bison, rabbit, venison and goat. People may also not be able to eat foods like milk and cheese, since the molecule can be found in trace amounts.
Humans and primates do not have the molecule, and it does not usually break down when meat is being cooked.
"It's more than just a food allergy," said Dr. Scott Commins, an allergist at the University of North Carolina. "You can't certain medications, many people can't have gelatin, so they can't have capsules or marshmallows."
He estimated that 34,000 people tested positive for the syndrome between 2010 and 2019, and he said he has seen around 3,500 patients with the syndrome in his 12-year career.
There is no treatment for the syndrome other than simply avoiding red meat and other products made from animals. Experts also said the syndrome was hard to identify for a long time, causing people to wonder why they would have a reaction if they ate some foods. They also said researchers are continuing to look into the syndrome.
The best way to prevent developing Alpha-gal Syndrome is to simply avoid getting tick bites. Experts also said not everyone who gets bit by the lone star tick will develop an allergic reaction to red meat.