A mysterious condition that strikes rapidly, without warning, triggering a potentially severe allergic reaction to red meat—it sounds like a science fiction movie. But this is not fiction and is in fact a medical condition known as alpha-gal syndrome. But what exactly is this syndrome?
Alpha-gal syndrome is spread by tick saliva, and it takes a tick bite to be infected. In the United States, the culprit is generally the Lone Star tick. The tick bite releases alpha-gal (a carbohydrate) into your skin, and your body recognizes this as an allergen, with your immune system then producing IgE antibodies to combat this allergen. This immune response is triggered each time alpha-gal is introduced into your body, which is problematic as the carbohydrate is found in the cell membranes of red meat.
The Allergic Reaction
This means that someone with alpha-gal syndrome is allergic to red meat. The reaction can range from mild itchiness and hives to anaphylactic shock with respiratory distress. The allergic reaction doesn't strike immediately, and the symptoms can appear several hours after consuming red meat. It's thought that this is because alpha-gal is more prominent in the fatty component of the meat, which takes longer to digest.
Testing for Alpha-Gal
When alpha-gal is suspected, your doctor will perform a blood test to look for IgE antibodies. You will be directed to visit your doctor for regular antibody testing, as many instances of alpha-gal syndrome will naturally dissipate over time. It's impossible to gauge how long this will take, and it can range from several months to several years. Some people may never be entirely free of alpha-gal syndrome, which is why regular antibody testing is needed to check the levels of IgE antibodies in your bloodstream.
Living With Alpha-Gal
You should give up red meat while you're infected. It's extremely unwise to chance it, as the severity of a reaction can be unpredictable. That burger may only cause some mild itchiness, but it could also result in constricted airways and a trip to the emergency room. Red meat and all red meat byproducts should be avoided while you're affected by alpha-gal syndrome.
While you can't speed up your recovery, if you are reinfected, you will likely prolong your condition. It's important to follow the best practices for avoiding tick bites, such as wearing pants and a long sleeve shirt while out in nature, along with using an insect repellent that's effective on ticks.
Alpha-gal syndrome can be prevented by avoiding being bitten by a tick, but if you were to be infected, you must temporarily suspend your consumption of red meat and receive regular antibody tests.