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A Tick Bite can Cause Meat Allergies

Update Date: Aug 11, 2014 10:19 AM EDT

A bug bite can turn people into vegetarians. According to new research out of the Vanderbilt University Medical Center, a bug called the "Lone Star Tick" can cause people to develop allergies to red meat, pork and dairy products.

The experts reported that people who got bitten by this tick might experience hives, breathing problems, dips in blood pressure levels or anaphylactic shock after consuming red meat or dairy. The researchers explained that this reaction most likely occurs due to a sugar called "alpha-gal" that can be found in ticks but not humans.

Alpha-gal can also be found in red meat, pork and certain dairy products. However, when humans consume these products normally, they do not react to the sugar. When bitten by a Lone Star Tick, the tick injects the sugar directly into the blood stream causing the immune system to produce antibodies. These antibodies become activated the next time alpha-gal enters the system via red meat, pork or dairy products, which causes an allergic reaction.

"This allergy is so weird. It's turned my life upside down," Chris Richey of Millersburg, MO, told Al Jazeera. "I don't want another reaction. That's just too scary. I can't even begin to tell you how it makes you feel."

Richey had eaten a pot roast and developed hives. Richey was hospitalized because she could not stop scratching the skin on her arms. The condition can be treated like any other allergic reactions through antihistamines and epinephrine. Experts stated that the reaction goes into effect roughly four to six hours after the bite. So far, the researchers are unsure whether or not the allergy is permanent.

The link between Lone Star Ticks and the alpha-gal allergy was discovered by Thomas Platts-Mills in 2006. Platts-Mills, a professor of medicine at the University of Virginia, was studying cancer patients. He was trying to understand why some of the patients had severe allergic reactions to the drug, cetuximab. None of the patients were ever exposed to the drug prior to the study. Platts-Mills and fellow researchers discovered that patients already had the IgE antibody to alpha-gal, which can be found in cetuximab. After more research, the team concluded that the patients, who were from the rural areas of the South and Midwest, must have developed the antibody from ticks.

"It had nothing to do with cancer," Platts-Mills said. "It had everything to do with rural Tennessee, rural North Carolina, rural Virginia, (etc.). It wasn't people who lived in the middle of the cities. It was the people who were living in the villages who really had this antibody."

Lone Star Ticks can be found mainly in the southeast with cases going as far north of Wisconsin and as far east as Maine.

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