WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) – Kansans love their beef, and as one of the top producers in country, we don’t have to look far to find a great steak. But something as simple as a tick bite might mean you’ve eaten your last sirloin, and continuing to enjoy red meat could not only make you sick, but potentially threaten your life. It leads to a bizarre allergy that still puzzles doctors in a lot of ways.
One in five Americans is at risk of developing the red meat allergy, and doctors have only known about it for a decade or so. One Kansas man suffered from allergic reactions for years before he finally discovered what was causing the problem.
“I’ll have the French toast,” Tom Thomas told the waitress at Wichita’s The Good Egg.
He enjoys the breakfast favorite, but it’s far from his first choice.
“Probably be the western omelet,” he said grinning. “Ham, cheese, bacon, the whole thing. Loaded.”
That’s now off the table after he developed a little-known allergy to red meat that sent him to urgent care a couple years ago.
“You could tell it was just getting tighter and tighter,” he recalled. “Your throat and everything… itching from head to toe.”
He was in anaphylactic shock, an overreaction by the body to a certain allergen. This extreme response happened twice before he got serious about finding the cause.
“It’s not a good feeling,” he said. “You’re looking up and all you’re seeing is that white light. That’s very, very, very scary.
The culprit is known as the lone star tick, named for the white spot on its back. It’s not everywhere, but its reach stretches from the southern border of the United States into Nebraska, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, clipping the eastern half of Kansas.
Thomas spends a lot of time outdoors. He hunts, fishes, hikes and plays golf, and he speculates he got the bite on some property he owns in the southeast corner of the state.
“I get them on me all the time,” he said.
Those who enjoy nature tend to carry the highest risk, but not everyone who is bitten by the lone star tick develops the red meat allergy.
WHAT HAPPENS TO THOSE AT RISK
“Ticks are vectors for different diseases,” Dr. Thomas Scott, a Wichita allergist, told us.
Scott’s office has diagnosed a handful of cases since it was discovered a decade ago, but as we learn more, he expects more cases to emerge.
“It’s a lot more common than we think,” he said. “It’s just the tip of the iceberg.”
The allergen responsible for the problem is known as Alpha-Gal and exists only in mammal meat like beef, pork, venison and lamb. Humans, old world monkeys and great apes don’t carry it; neither do chickens, turkeys or fish.
Here’s what happens: a lone star tick bites a mammal, like a cow. That same tick then bites the 20-percent of at-risk humans. Those people produce an allergy fighting antibody in response to Alpha-Gal. The body then stores that in mast cells where it waits for Alpha-Gal to return. When it does, histamines are released to attack it, and that’s what leads to the allergic response. Scott speculates it takes more than one bite to cause the reaction.
“Alpha gal is particularly sneaky because the temporal relationship… they are not right together,” he said.
Most other food allergies show up right away, but because it takes time for the body to break down red meat, it could be hours before symptoms emerge. And there’s no guarantee the body’s response will be extreme.
“If you ate a steak and you had a small reaction, you’re lucky,” Scott said, “because the next time you could have a big reaction because you only have to have a bad one one time.”
Scott recommends a blood test if you think you could be at-risk. That’s how Thomas ultimately discovered his allergy, and after years of looking for a solution, he’s now gone more than two months without red meat and without allergic reactions.
“Do I want it, heck yes I do, but it’s not a good idea,” Thomas said.
Beyond that, he’ll continue to do what he loves, and that means doing most of it outdoors. Thomas calls his allergy an inconvenience, but it’s served with a perspective that’s much bigger than what’s on his plate.
“I’m old enough that there could be a lot worse things happen to me, there’s no doubt about that.”
Epinephrine is the best way to combat the reaction, and even though Tom’s stopped eating red meat, he carries an Epipen with him at all times because there’s still a concern of cross-contamination with other food. And we do want to stress, this is not an infectious disease. Humans are not carriers. Alpha gal only comes from red meat.