Health Column: Meat lovers can face a dangerous allergy

Lone star ticks at different stages of their life cycle, with recently hatched larvae at right. (Credit: Centers for Disease Control)
Lone star ticks at different stages of their life cycle, with recently hatched larvae at right. (Credit: Centers for Disease Control)

You can recognize it easily by it’s distinguishing white spot. It’s the lone star tick, a noteworthy creepy crawler that meat-lovers now need to be especially aware of.

Instead of tick-borne diseases like Lyme or Rocky Mountain spotted fever, this tick’s bite can cause its host to develop an allergy to red meat, according to experts, including Dr. Erin McGintee, an allergist at ENT Allergy & Associates in Riverhead. 

We first spoke with Dr. McGintee last May, when she revealed that she was treating more than 60 patients from the East End for the meat allergy. A little over a year later, the doctor revealed she’s now treating over 180 patients with the food allergy. And she expects that number to rise.

“It is clear the allergy is more likely to develop in patients who have sustained multiple bites,” she wrote in a July article for Southampton Hospital’s Tick-borne Disease Resource Center. “In my experience, [the] allergy is more commonly seen in patients with jobs or hobbies that increase their risk of tick exposure.”

Patients who developed the allergy tend to have experienced local reactions to the bites that persist for weeks or even longer, she said.

Daniel Gilrein, entomologist and resident tick expert at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County, said the lone star tick population seems to be thriving in the region.

“There were — and continue to be — plenty of complaints about lone star ticks so far this year,” he said, advising residents to take advantage of Cornell’s tick diagnostic lab in Riverhead.

The lab, which can be contacted at 727-4126, will identify ticks for a small fee. Ticks can be dropped off or mailed to the lab at 423 Griffing Ave., Riverhead 11901.

“People are calling about and submitting samples of what they call ‘deer ticks’ — about 90 percent of which are actually lone star ticks,” Mr. Gilrein said.

Adult lone star ticks are brown or dark brown. Females tend to be larger, with a single white dot centered on their backs. Males, which tend to be a bit smaller, have several white dots across their backs, he said.

While little is known about why the tick’s bite causes the allergy to occur, researchers have confirmed some facts about the phenomenon since it was discovered in 2009.

The tick’s bite triggers production of antibodies that target a specific carbohydrate in red meat — galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose — more commonly known as alpha gal. The antibodies produce a histamine response to the carbohydrate, causing inflammation and an allergic reaction.

What’s scary about the reaction, Dr. McGintee said, is that it doesn’t present until more than two to three hours after ingestion, and has caused patients to go into full anaphylactic shock.

“Meats that are higher in fat are more likely to trigger a reaction than leaner cuts,” she explained, noting that gelatin, which is usually derived from beef or pork, also contains the carbohydrate.

Luckily, those who contract the meat allergy can still enjoy fish and poultry, which do not contain the targeted carbohydrate.

Southampton Hospital will host a free tick-borne disease lecture at Riverhead Free Library on Tuesday, Sept. 16, at 6:30 p.m. To attend, RSVP by calling 727-3228.

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