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Tick bite leaves St. Louis County woman allergic to red meat

BALLWIN, Mo. – Sally Drake of Ballwin said she loves the outdoors just as much as she loves eating red meat. But it wasn’t long before she figured out that her two loves all of a sudden weren’t mixing well.

“I ate red meat, specifically ground beef, and had a reaction,” Drake said as we interviewed her at Castlewood State Park, which she says she frequents.

Drake said her palms and the bottoms of her feet itched like crazy.

“So I just took a Benadryl,” she said.

Drake said she suspected it was the beef but didn’t think much of it and ate it again.

“It was more of a severe allergic reaction,” she said.

Drake said this time, besides the itching, she broke out in hives and had trouble breathing, so she went to the emergency room.

“The doctor came in and said there is this allergy that is caused by a tick bite that gives you an allergic reaction to meat,” Drake said.

It's called alpha-gal.

“It’s when a tick pulls this carbohydrate from another mammal that the tick bites and then bites the human and delivers this carbohydrate,” Drake said.

Dr. Laura Esswein with Mercy Hospital explained that although anyone can develop an allergy to meat, this allergy is more common in people who spend a lot of time outdoors.

Certain ticks, particularly the Lone Star Tick in Missouri, have the alpha-gal carbohydrate in their stomach. When the tick attaches to a person, some of that alpha-gal can be transferred to the host and over time, sensitize them to red meat. This does not occur immediately and may be connected to multiple tick bites.

For Drake, her experience was a very uncomfortable lesson learned.

“I would say just pay attention to any signs,” she said. “Whether it’s a little bit of itchiness a few hours after you eat red meat or pork, or some other kind of allergic reaction that you may have.”

Esswein said that incidences of this type of allergy are on the increase. Any patient who has severe allergic symptoms should consider an evaluation by an allergist.

There is a blood test for this allergy, and it can go away over time, although additional tick bites may lead to increased levels of the allergen.