Tick bites could trigger a surprising meat allergy in many Americans

Credit: Erik Karits / Unsplash

What is Alpha-Gal Syndrome?

Alpha-gal syndrome (AGS) is a condition caused by tick bites which triggers a serious allergy to meat in humans.

This allergic condition is emerging as a significant public health concern in the U.S., with potentially hundreds of thousands of Americans affected.

Unfortunately, many doctors are unfamiliar with AGS, hindering the accurate diagnosis and effective treatment of this condition.

The Prevalence of AGS in the U.S.

According to a study from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there were more than 110,000 suspected cases of AGS reported between 2010 and 2022.

However, since the diagnosis of AGS requires a specific test and a clinical examination, many cases may go untested. The CDC estimates that as many as 450,000 Americans might be affected by this condition.

The Importance of Awareness Among Health Care Providers

Despite the high prevalence of AGS, many health care providers are unfamiliar with this condition.

A survey of various medical professionals, including family doctors, pediatricians, and nurse practitioners, revealed that nearly half had not heard of AGS.

One-third of the respondents were not confident in their ability to diagnose or manage patients with AGS, with only 5% feeling “very confident” in their skills.

What Causes AGS and What are the Symptoms?

Alpha-gal is a sugar found in various types of meat and other products. People with AGS experience serious allergic reactions after consuming food or products containing alpha-gal.

The condition is thought to be associated with the bite of a lone star tick, although the involvement of other types of ticks has not been ruled out.

Symptoms of AGS can include hives or an itchy rash, nausea or vomiting, heartburn or indigestion, diarrhea, cough, difficulty breathing, drop in blood pressure, swelling of the lips, throat, tongue, or eyelids, dizziness or faintness, or severe stomach pain.

Symptoms usually appear two to six hours after eating meat or other exposure to products containing alpha-gal.

What’s the Next Step?

The researchers stress the importance of people who suspect they may have AGS to seek medical attention.

A detailed history of symptoms, a physical examination, and a blood test that checks for specific antibodies to alpha-gal are needed for diagnosis.

Dr. Johanna Salzer, a CDC researcher and the senior author on both studies, noted the substantial burden of AGS in the United States, given the large percentage of suspected cases going undiagnosed due to a lack of awareness among clinicians.

Hence, increasing awareness about AGS among both the public and healthcare providers is crucial to protect people from this emerging allergic condition.

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The study was published in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

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