Red Meat Allergies Caused By Tick Bites - Parasites and Health

The bite of a lone star tick can trigger a red meat allergy in sensitive people.
The bite of a lone star tick can trigger a red meat allergy in sensitive people. | Source

Tick Bites and Red Meat Allergies

As strange as it may sound, researchers have discovered that some cases of red meat allergy are caused by a bite from an animal called the lone star tick. This tick lives in the southeastern United States and is spreading up the east coast of the country. Its spread to a new area corresponds to an increase in the incidence of red meat allergy in that area.

Researchers have noticed that people with major allergy symptoms after lone star tick bites - such as the appearance of large, red welts - are more likely to develop a red meat allergy. Blood tests have shown that the affected people are allergic to a sugar in the meat called alpha-gal. A bite from a lone star tick is believed to sensitize people to the sugar.

Several thousand people in the United States are thought to have developed a red meat allergy due to a bite from a lone star tick. The number of affected people is expected to rise as the tick spreads to other parts of the country.

The lone star tick is named from the single light spot on the female's back.
The lone star tick is named from the single light spot on the female's back. | Source

The Lone Star Tick

Like other ticks, the lone star tick (Amblyomma americanum) isn't an insect. Ticks are actually relatives of spiders and belong to the same group of animals - the class Arachnida. Insects belong to the class Insecta.

The lone star tick has a brown or red-brown body. It gets its name from the single light spot on the back of the female. This spot may be white, cream, yellow or even gold. Like a spider, the tick has eight legs. It also has appendages called pedipalps around its mouth.

The tick's body is up to a quarter of an inch long. The male is generally smaller than the female. Ticks feed on blood and look larger when they have just had a meal.

There are four stages in the tick's life cycle - the egg, the larva, the nymph and the adult. The egg hatches into the larva, which looks like a very tiny tick. It has only six legs, however. The larva eventually sheds its outer layer to become a slightly larger nymph, which has eight legs. The nymph finally molts to become the adult.

Since each stage of a tick's life cycle looks almost the same apart from size, its development process is known as incomplete metamorphosis. An animal such as a butterfly undergoes complete metamorphosis because the larva (the caterpillar) looks very different from the adult (the butterfly).

A Magnified View of a Living Lone Star Tick Nymph

How Do Ticks Find Humans?

Ticks are parasites that can't fly or jump. Nevertheless, they are very good at finding and attaching to their hosts. Some clues that ticks use to detect a suitable host include the heat, moisture, breath and odours released by a human or animal. Some ticks detect vibrations created by a moving host or the shadow created by the host's body as it moves near the tick.

Ticks wait on leaves or grass near areas where suitable hosts travel, sensing their environment. Many wait with their front legs outstretched so that they can quickly climb on to a human or an animal as it passes by. This process is known as questing. Other ticks wait in a shelter until they sense that a host is approaching and then run towards the host. The lone star tick seems to use both of these strategies.

A tick grabs hold of a human with the claws at the end of its legs and then searches for an attachment spot. Once it finds a good place, it cuts into the skin with sharp mouthparts. The tick then inserts a feeding tube to withdraw blood. These preparation steps take from minutes to hours. The host may not feel the tick's presence because the tick injects an anesthetic. This prevents the host from feeling pain and trying to dislodge the tick. Once a tick begins feeding, it may continue to do so for hours, days or even weeks if it isn't removed.

A Tick Nymph Prepares to Feed

What is Alpha-gal?

Alpha-gal is the short name for a carbohydrate called galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose. This chemical is found in the muscles (or meat) of all mammals except primates, the order to which humans belong.

Beef, lamb, and pork come from mammals and contain alpha-gal. Meat from mammals is red in colour before being cooked and is therefore known as "red meat". Chickens, turkeys and other poultry aren't mammals and produce white meat that doesn't contain alpha-gal. Fish don't contain alpha-gal either.

Alpha-gal is a sugar, or carbohydrate. It's unusual for a sugar to cause a food allergy. Most food allergies are caused by proteins.

Meat Allergy Caused By Ticks

How Do Lone Star Ticks Cause Red Meat Allergies?

Lone star tick saliva is a complex mixture containing many different chemicals. When a tick bites us, some of its saliva enters our body. The mechanism by which the tick's saliva causes an alpha-gal allergy isn't certain, but the process is believed to be as follows.

Lone star tick saliva is thought to contain a chemical that either resembles alpha-gal or is alpha-gal. When a tick bites someone, it injects saliva containing the chemical into the victim's bloodstream. Up until this point, the person's body may have been able to deal with alpha-gal entering the digestive tract in food. When alpha-gal enters the blood of a sensitive person via a tick bite, however, the immune system creates antibodies to destroy the irritating chemical. Histamine is also made to help the attack. Unfortunately, the histamine produces the unpleasant symptoms of an allergy.

When a person eats red meat after being sensitized to alpha-gal, their immune system responds as though it has been exposed to the tick chemical again. It creates an even stronger attack against the alpha-gal molecules found in the meat. The overreaction of the immune system produces an allergic response.

Symptoms of anaphylaxis and anaphylactic shock, which may develop during a severe allergic response
Symptoms of anaphylaxis and anaphylactic shock, which may develop during a severe allergic response | Source

The proposal that lone star ticks could cause red meat allergies was first suggested in 2007. In North America the link is now generally accepted and is becoming well known.

Symptoms of Red Meat Allergies

The symptoms of an alpha-gal allergy may be severe, which is why the allergy is so worrying. The affected person may experience itching, hives and swelling. These symptoms may be restricted in range or may be part of anaphylaxis, which is a severe allergic response that affects the whole body. Anaphylaxis may be accompanied by symptoms of anaphylactic shock, which include vomiting, diarrhea, difficulty in breathing and a rapid and dramatic drop in blood pressure. Anaphylactic shock is a life threatening condition.

The symptoms of a red meat allergy don't appear immediately after eating the meat but are delayed for several hours. The reason for this isn't known for certain. It's been suggested that the alpha-gal is concentrated in the fatty parts of the meat, which take longer to digest than the protein component. The delay often means that it takes a while for the patient or their doctor to link the allergy symptoms with red meat ingestion.

An allergy to red meat due to the presence of alpha-gal may not be permanent. In at least some people it disappears after a few years. This may not be true in every case, however.

Fish and shellfish are a good source of protein for people who can't eat red meat.
Fish and shellfish are a good source of protein for people who can't eat red meat. | Source

Treatment for a Red Meat Allergy

Anybody with a suspected red meat allergy should consult a doctor, since allergy symptoms can be severe. People with a serious red meat allergy are often given an epinephrine auto-injector to carry around with them. A common brand is the EpiPen. Epinephrine is a hormone that counteracts the symptoms of anaphylactic shock, including the low blood pressure and the difficulty in breathing. It also relaxes muscles in the digestive tract.

The best treatment plan for an alpha-gal sensitive person is to avoid red meat, however. Chicken, turkey, eggs, fish, shellfish, beans and lentils don't contain alpha-gal and are a good source of protein. Vegan "meats", which are really meat substitutes made from plant material, are also available.

In some cases a sensitive person may have to avoid dairy milk too, since this also contains alpha-gal. Luckily, a range of non-dairy milks are available today for people who choose not to drink milk or who are allergic to dairy products. Some of these milks are rice, oat, almond, soy and coconut milks. Alpha-gal is also present in some medical drugs, so it's important that all doctors seen by a patient with an alpha-gal allergy know about the disorder.

Beans are a good source of protein.
Beans are a good source of protein. | Source

Preventing Tick Bites

Red meat allergies can develop due to other causes beside tick bites, but taking steps to avoid bites could be very helpful in preventing an allergy in some people. Since ticks can transmit diseases, it's a good idea for everyone to avoid them.

Some methods to help prevent tick bites are described below. Ticks are small animals and can crawl through small spaces, which needs to be remembered when trying to create a barrier to prevent them from contacting the skin.

  • Avoid woods and bushy areas as well as places known to have a large population of ticks.
  • If you do enter a wooded area, cover your skin as much as possible. Wear long pants tucked into boots or socks. Wear a long sleeved shirt and tuck the shirt into the waistband of pants. Also consider wearing a wide brimmed hat.
  • Stick to established trails instead of making your own. Don't walk through tall grass or other vegetation.
  • Walk near the centre of a trail to avoid overhanging branches or plants where ticks may be waiting for victims.
  • Wear light coloured clothing so that ticks can easily be seen if they get on to your body.
  • Chemical prevention is somewhat controversial, but the standard recommendation for avoiding ticks with a chemical barrier is to apply DEET to exposed skin and permethrin to clothing and shoes.
  • When you get home after a hike, examine your skin carefully for ticks. The sooner ticks are removed from the body, the less likely they are to transmit disease. Pay special attention to hidden areas of the body such as the armpit and the back of the knee, which is where ticks often settle.

How to Properly Remove a Tick

Removing Ticks From The Skin

If you do discover a tick attached to your skin, a pair of fine-tipped tweezers is the best tool for removing it. It's a good idea to carry the tweezers in a portable first aid kit while hiking or walking in rural areas. Fine-tipped tweezers should also be available at home, since ticks are sometimes found in gardens. The University of Manitoba video above demonstrates the proper technique for tick removal. Once the tick has been removed, the skin should be disinfected with alcohol and the area monitored.

Tick bites don't necessarily lead to disease. However, pathogens (microbes that cause disease) sometimes pass from the tick's mouth into the bite site. If unusual or unpleasant symptoms develop at the site of a tick bite or elsewhere in the body soon after the bite, a doctor should be consulted. In addition, if you develop an apparent allergy to red meat (or another food) after previously being able to eat the food, a doctor should be consulted for a diagnosis and treatment recommendations.

© 2014 Linda Crampton

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Comments 56 comments

MJennifer profile image

MJennifer 2 years ago from Arizona

This is absolutely fascinating, Alicia. It's the first time I'd heard of a red-meat allergy -- much less being of tick-bite origin. Ticks are nasty creatures and it's amazing what they can do to us and our domestic animals -- from the ear-ticks that plague horses to the ticks that transmit ehrlichiosis to our dog (and, of course, lyme disease).

Thanks for these terrific, informative articles.

Best -- Mj


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thanks so much for the lovely comment, MJ! Yes, as I was writing this hub I was thinking of Lyme disease and the effects of ticks on our pets. Several hubs could be written about the ways in which ticks affect our lives! They are certainly very annoying and sometimes dangerous animals, but they're interesting at the same time.


billybuc profile image

billybuc 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

That was really interesting my friend. I had no idea. If we have ticks here in western Washington, I've never seen them...but this is very good to know. Thank you!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Bill. Thanks for the comment! There are ticks that transmit Lyme disease near where I live, although they aren't widespread at the moment. I hope the lone star tick doesn't make it here!


FlourishAnyway profile image

FlourishAnyway 2 years ago from USA

I have never heard of red meat allergies and am fascinated reading this. I haven't eaten red meat since the mid-1990s and have always believed that we'd come to discover over time that there are a number of health-related reasons why we shouldn't. This is just one more of those. Voted up and more, and shared.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you very much for the votes and the share, Flourish! I appreciate your visit. It's interesting to hear that you haven't eaten red meat for so long!


mary615 profile image

mary615 2 years ago from Florida

Who would ever have associated an allergy caused by a tick bite?? I learn something new every day! We have lots of ticks where I live, and we are always diligent.

Very good info here. Voted UP and shared.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you very much for the comment, the vote and the share, Mary! It's an excellent plan to be diligent about ticks, especially since they sometimes cause disease.


LongTimeMother profile image

LongTimeMother 2 years ago from Australia

The Lone Star tick is not the only one to cause allergic reactions to red meat. The paralysis tick in Australia can cause similar problems.

My husband has been vegetarian since he was 8 years old, when he first appeared allergic to red meat. He was living in the UK at the time and, while it was never suggested a tick could have caused the allergy, with the benefit of hindsight we suspect that was the cause.

Very interesting hub. Voted up and shared. :)


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, LongTimeMother. Yes, I recently read about the link between a tick and a red meat allergy in Australia. I hope we don't discover that even more ticks can cause the allergy! Thank you very much for the interesting and informative comment. I appreciate your vote and the share, too!


DDE profile image

DDE 2 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

A well-informed hub about such issues. I don't eat much of red meat. Something I had no idea of and you summed it all so beautifully.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you very much, DDE! I appreciate your comment.


Perspycacious profile image

Perspycacious 2 years ago from Today's America and The World Beyond

Very thorough. Did I miss the area of the U.S.A. likely to harbor them?


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Perspycacious. Yes, the ticks are on the east coast of the U.S. at the moment. I'm hoping that they don't spread to the west coast of North America, which is where I live! Thanks for the visit and comment.


rebeccamealey profile image

rebeccamealey 2 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

Gosh, how awful. I hate ticks. We have bunches around here in the field. I have never heard of the lone star tick. Thanks for the heads up!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Rebecca. I wouldn't like to have so many ticks near my home! Thank you very much for the visit.


Jackie Lynnley profile image

Jackie Lynnley 2 years ago from The Beautiful South

Great article; so complete and completely well done! There are ticks in my area but I seem to avoid them pretty well for all the time I spend outside. I do dust off before gong inside though just for bugs in general. lol ^+


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you so much for the kind comment, Jackie! Dusting off before you go inside sounds like a great idea!


bdegiulio profile image

bdegiulio 2 years ago from Massachusetts

Hi Linda. How interesting. I had no idea that we could develop an allergy from a tick bite. Here in the northeast we have ticks everywhere so this info is good to know. Between Lyme disease and now this it pays to take precautions. Great job and thank you for the information.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Bill. Yes, it does pay to take precautions, especially where you live. Thank you very much for the comment. I appreciate your visit.


Faith Reaper profile image

Faith Reaper 2 years ago from southern USA

I live in southeastern USA and we do have ticks. I will certainly take your wise precautions here when out walking! In addition, I believe I will stick to fish. We just had salmon tonight : )

This is a fascinating read and you have covered the topic so well, as always.

Voted up +++ tweeting, pinning, googling and sharing

Blessings always


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you so much for the all the shares, Faith!! I appreciate your comment and vote very much, too. If I lived in the southeastern part of the United States I would definitely take precautions when walking in tick areas!

Blessings to you, Faith. Have a great rest of the week.


Tom Schumacher profile image

Tom Schumacher 2 years ago from Huntington Beach, CA

Great hub! Except, however, these lone star ticks got me thinking about the steaks I just bought from Costco. Errr! ; )


Vellur profile image

Vellur 2 years ago from Dubai

A great hub, ticks can be very painful when they attach to the skin. They certainly know how to latch on to human skin with their claws. Great write with a lot of information. Voted up.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thanks, Tom. I hope the steaks don't cause you any problems!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Vellur. Thanks for the comment and the vote. Ticks are certainly very capable animals!


PegCole17 profile image

PegCole17 2 years ago from Dallas, Texas

Fascinating study here, AliciaC. I had no idea that allergies were related to insect bites like this tick. Years ago, our dog Lady was bitten and developed Ehrlichia. Before it was properly diagnosed, it was too late. The vet said the tick could have been on her for any amount of time, no matter how short, to cause this.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Peg, I'm very sorry to hear about the loss of Lady. It's a horrible situation when a tick transmits a pathogen to a dog or a human, especially when the disease can't be treated. Thank you very much for the comment.


epbooks profile image

epbooks 2 years ago from Las Vegas, NV

Oh, I hate ticks. When I lived in NY, I remember there were so many of them. Here in Vegas, we don't really have them, however, my dog (foster dog at the time) had gotten lyme disease. Thankfully, we found it in time. Thanks for posting!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Liz. Lyme disease is definitely something that I would like to avoid! I'm glad your dog recovered from this illness. Thanks for the visit and the comment.


Vickiw 2 years ago

Great Hub Alicia! Glad we don't have them on the west coast of BC. Your information is very comprehensive, as all your Hubs are!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you very much, Vicki! I appreciate your kind comment. I'm very glad that we don't have lone star ticks here, too!


Mel Carriere profile image

Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

I am fortunate to live in the West, where I have never had a problem with ticks. One time after exploring a grassy civil war battlefield in northern Georgia I found two ticks in my abdomen and I was absolutely horrified. Luckily the wife was there to do surgery with the tweezers. I don't think they were the ticks you described because they were black. I have also never suffered from red meat allergies. I could eat an entire side of beef for dinner with no ill effects. Great hub!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

I'm glad that your wife had tweezers with her when you met the ticks, Mel! Tweezers can be very useful for removing ticks from the skin. Thanks for the visit and the comment.


Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 2 years ago from Houston, Texas

I had no idea that ticks could cause red meat allergies. Lyme Disease is the first thing that I think of with regard to adverse effects from tick bites. Very informative post. It is good to know of these potential dangers and take precautions rather than suffer the consequences. Will share this by pinning, tweeting and sharing.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you very much for the comment, Peggy, as well as the pin, tweet and share! I suspect that most people think of Lyme disease when they think of a disease transmitted by ticks. If lone star ticks continue to spread, though, we may be hearing more about red meat allergies caused by tick bites.


Nell Rose profile image

Nell Rose 2 years ago from England

Hi Alicia, I never knew that! imagine being allergic to red meat because of the chemical from the tick! I wonder how many doctors actually diagnose it right when someone goes to them? not many I would imagine! I learned something new, so thanks, nell


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Nell. I expect you're right. Some people may never discover that their red meat allergy is due to a tick bite! Thank you very much for the visit and the comment.


aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 2 years ago from Stillwater, OK

This was something that I didn't know about, but since it is very rare that I eat meat, it could be a moot point. However, I do drink milk...


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thanks for the visit, Deb. Hopefully you'll never develop a milk allergy!


teaches12345 profile image

teaches12345 2 years ago

This is really good information to have, especially with the hot summer months upon us. I didn't know they inject an anesthetic into your skin. No wonder people can't detect them earlier. Great read and very interesting.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thanks, Dianna. I appreciate the comment. You're right - it is very important to know about ticks during the summer months!


CMHypno profile image

CMHypno 2 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

Another great hub Alicia and great advice. Tick borne diseases seem to be spreading worldwide and there are more cases of Lyme disease year on year over here in the UK. Not really come across red meat allergy before, but certainly distressing for sufferers who like their steak!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Cynthia. Yes, although there are other good sources of protein, people who love red meat would probably be very unhappy if they couldn't eat it! Ticks can certainly be a big problem. Thank you very much for the comment.


Larry Rankin profile image

Larry Rankin 2 years ago from Oklahoma

Extremely informative and expertly researched. I was bitten by a tick several days ago and a red welt appeared. This is a reaction I haven't experienced before. Do you know if these ticks would likely be in Central Oklahoma?


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Larry. Thank you very much for the great comment! Unfortunately the lone star tick has reached as far west as Oklahoma, but I don't how far it's penetrated into the state.


Monis Mas profile image

Monis Mas 2 years ago

Very educational hub. I hate those little creatures, and I try to avoid them, although I live in a very woody area, so it can be difficult.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Monis Mas. Thanks for the visit and the comment. It must be hard to avoid ticks where you live!


MsDora profile image

MsDora 2 years ago from The Caribbean

Thank you for sharing this very valuable information. So many things which we think are unexplainable just have hidden explanations. I'm sure your article clears up some mystery for red-meat eaters. Good to learn something new.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you, MsDora. I appreciate your visit and comment.


AudreyHowitt profile image

AudreyHowitt 2 years ago from California

Ticks seem to be all over this time of year in the brush--and they are no laughing matter---I didn't know that there was such a thing as a red meat allergy--


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Audrey. Yes, ticks are abundant in some areas. Unfortunately, red meat allergies seem to be becoming more common. Thanks for the visit.


lisavanvorst profile image

lisavanvorst 2 years ago from New Jersey

Very interesting and yet scary article. The reaction to this tick bite is so severe. The correlation between the tick bite and red meat is fascinating.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, lisavanvorst. Thank you for the visit and the comment. Yes, as you say, the connection between the meat and the tick bite is fascinating, but it's also worrying.


Magdalena 2 years ago

I was just diagnosed with the Mammalian Meat Allergy and I still can't believe that ticks can cause such allergic reaction... I guess there are worse things that can happen but after four outbreaks of excruciating itchiness and hives, followed by steroids treatments for misdiagnosed illnesses, I'm happy to know what's causing it! Now off to learning how to live without red meat


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

It's great that you finally found the cause of your symptoms, Magdalena! It sounds like you've had a very frustrating time. Good luck with your meatless diet.

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