**This piece was submitted as part of our Community Contributor series.
By Heather Blair / OC Monitor Community Contributor
A single bite from a tick could make you allergic to red meat. Imagine breaking out in hives hours after enjoying a cheeseburger. Or suffering from swollen lips, nausea and rashes each time you eat. In the most severe cases, you might be hospitalized due to an anaphylactic reaction affecting your respiratory system.
Though this sounds like something from a sci-fi movie or comic book, it is a reality – and the danger is in your backyard.
Alpha-Gal, short for galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose is an unknown disease to most people in this area. This carbohydrate molecule is found in mammalian meats, most commonly cow, lamb and pork. The Lone Star tick feeds on the animal and then transmits the molecule to humans. Once bitten, the body’s immune system is rewired and triggers an allergy to meat, and in some cases dairy, from a mammal.
Though there is a simple blood test to confirm Alpha-Gal, many patients suffer for months, or even years, before discovering they have the allergy. The symptoms and severity range from person to person and often mimic other issues. And just like all allergies, triggers and responses vary based on the individual.
Because it is a relatively new disorder, having been discovered only about a decade ago, some doctors aren’t even aware to test for the allergy. Currently, Alpha-Gal is not tracked nationally so the number of actual cases is unknown.
Working for the heath department, it was a danger I was aware of and even educated families about during home visits with HANDS. In fact, when I discovered a tick on the back of my knee, the summer of 2016, I still had a “Tick Kit” in my purse from the demo, which I used to remove and collect it.
Since there was an immediate reaction to the bite, along with an itchy rash that lasted several weeks, I asked for a test. At that time, it came back negative so I assumed I was safe. Fast forward to the next year, when rashes started appearing on my torso. Throughout the next six months, I would endure a range of symptoms, which I excused to other ailments or allergies. Even though I log what I eat daily, there seemed to be no common denominator on a trigger. Unlike other food allergies, the reactions from Alpha-Gal often appear hours after eating, which makes it more difficult to diagnose.
Yet, at this year’s physical, sharing what I felt were random issues, my doctor requested testing for and later confirmed the suspicion of Alpha-Gal. Because there is no known cure, avoidance of red meat and dairy was prescribed.
Though chicken and fish don’t cause a reaction, eliminating all red meat and dairy is a dietary adjustment. For the first few weeks, I felt anxiety preparing nearly every meal and found myself sticking to a few safe selections. Eating out seemed impossible, for fear of contamination. Alpha-Gal requires a lifestyle change and one many find overwhelming or confusing.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the lone star tick’s range covers most of the Eastern United States and west as far as Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. The CDC has tips for avoiding ticks, including walking in the center of trails, avoiding wooded or overgrown areas where ticks are more likely to live, using Permethrin-treated boots and clothing during camping or hunting trips, and using DEET-containing bug repellents on the skin.
However, I was proactive and still got bit. On the weekends, I was religious in spraying my family with a blend of essential oils known to safely protect us. We treated our dogs to ensure they didn’t bring in a carrier from the backyard. If we were outdoors, I inspected everyone on our return home. And practicing this, we’ve rarely seen a tick for the past several years. On a normal weekday though, it didn’t seem as urgent to follow these same rituals.
In every case, it only takes one bite, one tick can totally alter how you eat.
For me, it has been a frustrating adaptation. As someone who loves to cook for her family, even having a son who is training to be a chef, food is a big part of our lives. Yet, when you worry about an allergic reaction with every meal, it alters your perception of food. I no longer live to eat, I eat to live.
Though it is early spring, ticks have already been seen this season. Take action now to protect yourself and your family. If you are having symptoms that seem difficult to diagnosis, ask to be tested for Alpha-Gal.
(Editor’s note: Readers can also check out our story about Crystal and Joey Snyder who were forced to give up their Fordsville pizza business after Crystal developed the Alpha-Gal meat allergy and was unable to continue to prepare pizza and sandwiches.)
Heather Blair is an Ohio County native, residing in Beaver Dam with her husband, Tim, and son, Noah. She is a Family Support Worker for the HANDS program, through the Green River District Health Department. Through HANDS, she helps families build healthy, safe environments to boost growth and development for their children. She is active in her church, enjoys rock painting, photography, fishing and exploring with her husband. Heather has a passion for writing and sharing about faith, family, and finding joy in every day.