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Tick Bite Meat Allergy May Impact Half a Million People

Alpha-gal syndrome, a potentially life-threatening allergy associated with lone star tick bites, is a growing public health concern, and many healthcare providers are unaware it exists.

Experts estimate that the prevalence of tick-borne illnesses such as Lyme disease is likely higher than previously thought. Moreover, surveillance data suggests that other tick bite-related diseases, including babesiosis and Heartland virus, are emerging threats in some regions of the United States.

However, another tick-related health concern is also on the rise, with more people affected than previously thought. And many healthcare providers may not have heard of the condition.

Alpha-gal syndrome (AGS), AKA the red-meat allergy or the tick bite meat allergy, is a serious allergic condition that people can develop after being bitten by a lone star tick. However, experts say other ticks might also cause the syndrome.

People with AGS experience allergy symptoms to alpha-gal — a sugar found in meat. Alpha-gal is also found in some food products made from mammals, such as cow's milk, gelatin, and some pharmaceuticals.

Symptoms of AGS often occur two to six hours after eating foods containing alpha-gal, and include rashes, hives, stomach distress, and diarrhea. However, the allergy can also produce potentially life-threatening symptoms like shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, a decrease in blood pressure, swelling of the lips, throat, tongue, and fainting.

In a CDC news release, Ann Carpenter, an epidemiologist and lead author of one of the studies, says, "Alpha-gal syndrome is an important emerging public health problem, with potentially severe health impacts that can last a lifetime for some patients."

According to a July 27 CDC news release, more than 110,000 people were diagnosed with AGS between 2010 and 2022. However, identifying the condition requires specific tests and a physical exam. Therefore, many people may go undiagnosed.

Because of this, the CDC estimates that the tick bite meat allergy may have affected nearly 450,000 people in the United States. The agency also says the prevalence of AGS appears to be higher in southern, midwestern, and mid-Atlantic regions.

What's more, in a study involving 1,500 healthcare providers nationwide, almost half did not know about alpha-gal syndrome, and around one-third said they were not confident in their ability to diagnose or treat the condition.

In addition, other research examining laboratory test results from 2017 to 2022 showed that more than 30% of 300,000 people suspected of having AGS tested positive.

"It's critical for clinicians to be aware of AGS so they can properly evaluate, diagnose, and manage their patients and also educate them on tick-bite prevention to protect patients from developing this allergic condition," Carpenter adds.

In light of the new research, Johanna Salzer, senior author on both studies, suggests that people who think they might have alpha-gal syndrome should make an appointment with a healthcare provider or allergist and "provide a detailed history of symptoms, get a physical examination, and a blood test that looks for specific antibodies (proteins made by your immune system) to alpha-gal."


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