What is Alpha-gal Syndrome (Red Meat Allergy) and How Do I Prevent It?

What is Alpha-gal Syndrome?

Alpha-gal syndrome (AGS) - sometimes called alpha-gal allergy, red meat allergy, or tick bite meat allergy - is a serious, potentially life-threatening allergy. It is a growing epidemic, and the lack of widespread public awareness is causing delayed diagnosis and misdiagnosis.

Alpha-gal syndrome is a food allergy to red meat and other products made from mammals, including many medical products, marshmallows, and more. Scientists believe the syndrome is caused by a tick bite, which then transmits a sugar molecule called alpha-gal into the body. For some people, this triggers a reaction from the immune system which produces an allergic reaction to all mammalian meat, not just "red meat" or beef, but also pork, lamb, rabbit, venison, etc.

What Causes Alpha-gal Syndrome?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, (CDC), growing evidence suggests that alpha-gal syndrome in the United States is triggered by the bite of a lone star tick and possibly other ticks. The lone star tick is found mainly in dense woodlands with thick undergrowth on the eastern side of the United States. It is one of the more aggressive ticks, and is thought to transmit alpha-gal as well as infections such as ehrlichiosis, tularemia, Heartland and Bourbon virus. As tick populations grow and their ranges expand, the number of people diagnosed with alpha-gal syndrome is rising.

Research by Dr. Scott Commins, Professor of Medicine at the University of North Carolina, also shows a connection between lone star tick bites and alpha-gal syndrome. 

What Triggers Alpha-gal Allergic Reactions?

While the most common food triggers are mammalian meats, other foods such as dairy, gelatin, and other mammalian byproducts can also cause reactions when ingested. Medical products that can trigger reactions include medications, vaccines, and many others. Personal care and household products can also trigger reactions.

You might be wondering, if all "red" meat - beef, lamb, pork, etc.- has the alpha-gal sugar in it, why doesn't everyone have an allergic reaction when they eat meat unless they are exposed to alpha-gal through a tick bite

Here's why: "A tick bite triggers your immune system to react to alpha-gal as a defense mechanism. The antibodies that your body makes to protect you from the tick bite remain in your system. These antibodies will then combat alpha-gal when you eat meat that contains it." (source: Healthline.com)

What are the Symptoms of Alpha-gal Syndrome?

The signs of alpha-gal syndrome are varied and can be different for different people. This makes alpha-gal difficult to diagnose. Unlike other food allergies such as peanut or shellfish allergies, where reactions happen right away, symptoms of alpha-gal may happen quickly, but usually they are delayed.

For someone with alpha-gal, anaphylactic reactions to meat byproducts in injected drugs can be immediate and life-threatening. But reactions to mammalian meat eaten as part of a meal - like pork, beef, rabbit, lamb, and venison - are usually delayed from 2 to 10 hours. Doctors and other medical professionals may not think of testing for a meat allergy when the signs don't show up at the time the meat is eaten!

Signs and symptoms of Alpha-gal meat allergy:

• An anaphylactic reaction
• Gastrointestinal issues like stomach distress, nausea, or diarrhea
• Difficulty breathing
• Swollen lips or swelling in other body parts
• Itchy skin, hives or eczema (dry, flakey skin)
• Runny nose or sneezing
• A drop in blood pressure
• Headaches
• Dizziness or fainting

Most people with alpha-gal meat allergy experience some of these symptoms, but not necessarily all of them. Up to 20% of people with alpha-gal syndrome only have gastrointestinal symptoms, like abdominal pain and diarrhea, without any typical allergy symptoms, like rashes. These people are often misdiagnosed with IBS or other GI conditions.

What Is the Best Way to Treat Alpha-gal Syndrome?

At the moment, there is no cure or specific treatment for alpha-gal syndrome. People with AGS need to avoid foods and other products containing the alpha-gal sugar in order to prevent allergic reactions. It's important to note that, like reactions to bee stings and shellfish, additional tick bites can make reactions worse over time. Avoiding tick bites may help keep reactions from getting worse or more severe.

Does Alpha-gal Syndrome Get Worse Over Time?

Unfortunately, in some cases, when people suffering from AGS get additional tick bites, their symptoms get worse: allergic reactions result in more serious symptoms, such as anaphylactic shock or extreme abdominal pain. In other cases, people with alphagal can become sensitive to more foods and different kinds of meat byproducts. For instance someone who has experienced an allergic reaction to meat may begin having an allergic reaction to milk and other dairy products. 

Over time, when exposure to tick bites doesn't happen, people with alpha-gal have actually experienced weaker or fewer allergic reactions. Some of them have actually seen their allergic reactions stop after a number of years. But there is little evidence to suggest that alpha-gal syndrome will always go away.

How Do I Prevent Tick Bites?

To minimize the risk of alpha-gal and other dangerous tick-borne diseases, using effective repellents is crucial. Thanks to its long-lasting nature, permethrin-treated clothing is recommended by the CDC and other medical authorities to help repel tick bites. You can learn more about ways to use permethrin to stay protected, such as clothing with built-in repellent and permethrin spray. For more information about how to stay protected from ticks and the dangerous diseases they may carry, visit our Equip-4-Ticks Resource Center.

Additional Alpha-gal Resources

Help Prevent Tick Bites with Permethrin-Treated Clothing