science of us

Apparently Tick Bites Can Make You Allergic to Red Meat

Photo: Lauree Feldman/Getty Images

Having grown up in woodsy-ish Minnesota, I have plucked my fair share of gross, fat little ticks off my body (and my dog’s body). I have to say, they’re a horrible animal that nobody likes. There is no reason for them, as far as I can tell. The benign ones simply engorge themselves on your blood (or even worse, your precious dog’s blood), and the worst ones give you Lyme disease. But did you know they can also make you allergic to steak?

The Lone Star tick, previously contained to the American Southeast, is on the lam, having been spotted as far as Minnesota, Texas, and Maine, and the result is as many as 5,000 cases of tick-induced red-meat allergy, up from mere dozens of cases ten years ago, when the cause of the allergy was first identified. Dr. Scott Commins, an allergist and associate professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, tells NPR that there have also been cases noted in Germany and Australia, though those are likely linked to other species of tick. (The Lone Star tick, obviously, is All-American.)

The Lone Star tick is thought to transmit a red-meat allergy through a Marvel heroine-sounding carbohydrate called alpha-gal, and can be diagnosed via blood test. It’s thought that the presence of alpha-gal (a sugar produced by certain non-human animals) encourages the human immune system to create a rush of antibodies which then react to alpha-gal in other animals we consume. (If you needed more reasons to go vegetarian, here is another one!)

Unlike other food allergies, symptoms to the alpha-gal allergy can take hours to develop — as in the case of a Maryland woman who broke out in hives six hours after eating what is described as “Italian-style pork sausage.”

Commins says that, for many people, the alpha-gal allergy will resolve on its own, but those who’ve been infected must avoid further tick bites to do so — which, of course, is easier said than done, but you can start by staying out of the woods, constantly examining your bare ankles, and moving to the west coast.

There’s a Tick That Can Make You Allergic to Red Meat