What Should You Know about an Alpha-Gal Allergy?
Alpha-gal allergy, which is more often referred to as red meat allergy, is a condition associated with the immune system’s hypersensitivity to a carbohydrate called alpha-gal.
The full name of the carbohydrate molecule is galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose, and it’s found in the cell membranes of mammals, such as cows, sheep, bison, pigs, etc. Alpha-gal is not present in primates though.
A bite of a Lone Star tick is considered to be one the most common causes of an alpha-gal allergy in people.
What Causes Alpha-Gal Allergies?
There are several potential causes of this condition, including a tick bite. When the alpha-gal molecule gets into the body, it causes the immune system to overreact, leading to the release of antibodies.
In about 80 percent of cases, an alpha-gal allergy is result of a bite of a Lone Star tick, which got its name due to the white marks on its back. Yet, researchers are still not completely sure why exactly a tick bite causes the immune system to release of alpha-gal antibodies.
When it comes to the United States, the Lone Star tick is typically found in states such as Iowa, New England, and Southeast Texas. Yet, people living in other parts of the country, including Hawaii, have reported various cases of red meat allergy, as well.
Although they are considered quite rare, alpha-gal allergies have been on the rise recently. However, not much is known about this type of allergy, as it was only identified in 2006.
The immune system’s sensitivity to alpha-gal was first studied in 2002, when an allergy researcher from the University of Virginia discovered an allergy-like reaction to cetuximab – a medication used for treating cancer. The reaction was triggered by the alpha-gal sugar contained in the medicine, which is similar to that in red meat.
What Are the Symptoms of Alpha-Gal Allergies?
If you have a red meat allergy, your immune system perceives the alpha-gal molecule as an actual threat to your body. As a result, it produces antibodies in order to fight the invader, which leads to the release of histamine and other chemicals responsible for many allergy symptoms.
An allergic reaction to alpha-gal sugar usually occurs when a person eats red meat. In addition, this type of allergy can also be triggered by foods or medications containing gelatin.
In most cases, patients affected by an alpha-gal allergy experience a runny or stuffy nose, sneezing, nausea, vomiting, indigestion, diarrhea, headaches, skin rash or hives, asthma, breath shortness, or even anaphylaxis.
Anaphylaxis is a severe reaction that requires an immediate emergency treatment. Although this reaction is rare among people with alpha-gal allergies, it can really be life-threatening.
The symptoms of an allergic reaction may develop within 4 to 6 hours after a person eats red meat, which is why the cause of such a reaction is not always clear. Besides, a person allergic to alpha-gal can sometimes eat red meat without even developing a reaction.
How to Diagnose an Alpha-Gal Allergy?
You may acquire an alpha-gal allergy at any age, even if you have never experienced allergies before.
If you notice having any symptoms of allergy after eating red meat, make a visit to an allergist. A diagnosis of an alpha-gal allergy depends on various factors, including: what and how much you ate before the reaction, when exactly the reaction developed and what symptoms it caused.
Usually, it takes minimum 2 hours until the symptoms of a red meat allergy appear, which makes it different from other food allergies. On the other hand, because of this delay, it may be difficult to connect the allergy symptoms and the consumption of red mead, which is why an experienced specialist may be needed to make a proper diagnosis.
Try to remember if you have had a tick bite recently, as this may help to diagnose the condition correctly.
Speaking of allergy testing, there are two ways to identify an alpha-gal allergy.
First, a blood test can help to identify alpha-gal antibodies in the bloodstream. It usually takes about 1 or 2 weeks until the results are ready.
Another option is a skin prick test, which involves pricking a tiny amount of the allergen onto the skin. If the affected area of the skin develops a bump similar to a mosquito bite, a person is allergic. Compared to blood testing, skin testing provides the results much faster – the whole test takes about 20 minutes.
How Do You Keep the Symptoms Under Control?
People with acquired red meat allergy may need to apply significant modifications to their diet. If you have a known alpha-gal allergy, the best way to control the condition is to avoid the triggers, which in this case include all kind of mammal meats.
Be especially careful when eating out, as some people may react to the food that was prepared in the same kitchen as red meat.
You can still eat proteins like poultry, eggs, and seafood though. Dairy products can also be acceptable, in some cases.
If you have a severe allergy, your doctor may prescribe you an epinephrine (adrenaline) auto-injector, such as EpiPen. If you are prescribed one, make sure to carry always two doses of the medication with you, in case of an emergency. Talk to your doctor about how and when to use the auto-injector.
This device should be used, as soon as you notice any symptoms of an anaphylactic reaction. The symptoms of anaphylaxis include: tightness in the throat, constant coughing, breath shortness, trouble breathing or swallowing, hives, and weakened pulse.
Make sure to use the auto-injector, even if you are not sure whether the symptoms are caused by an allergy. Despite the fact that epinephrine may cause a number of side effects, it can be a lifesaver, in some instances.
Potential side effects of epinephrine include: anxiety, restlessness, shakiness, and dizziness. Some people may also experience abnormal heart rate, increased blood pressure, fluid build-up in the lungs, or a heart attack, although these side effects are very rare.
After the injection of epinephrine, you should seek for a follow-up medical care, to prevent any complications.
Can You Prevent an Alpha-Gal Allergy?
Avoiding the tick bites is the best method to prevent an alpha-gal allergy so far.
If you live in an area, when Lone Star ticks are common, you may need to avoid wooded areas or high grass, as they are typical for such places.
When you are camping or hiking, make sure to wear light-colored clothing fully covering all your limbs.
If you have pets or livestock, check them for ticks regularly.
Always use an insect repellent when spending time outdoors. When you return from a wooded area, wash your clothes with a hot water.
According to some evidence, avoiding a repeated tick bite can increase your chances of recovering from an alpha-gal allergy.