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Alpha-gal Syndrome: tick bites, red meat allergy and a possible cure


Messenger Staff

Earlier this year, I was driving down the road, listening to the local radio station. At that time, the first COVID-19 vaccines were rolling out, and the injections were the topic of discussion that day. A caller to the talk show that day questioned how the vaccines would interact with people who have various allergies—namely those diagnosed with an alpha-gal allergy.

It was not surprising that the radio hosts did not have any knowledge of the alpha-gal allergy, considering that despite my healthcare background, I was oblivious to the allergy myself. What was surprising, though, was the multiple calls that were made to the show after the original caller about alpha-gal allergies here in Meade County.

Alpha-gal Syndrome, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is a serious, potentially life-threatening allergic reaction to alpha-gal, a sugar found in most mammals with the exception of humans, monkeys and apes.

It is believed that after biting a mammal such as a deer, sheep or cow, a tick will have alpha-gal in its saliva. When the tick then bites a human, a reaction may be triggered.

For those who develop alpha-gal syndrome, eating red meat or coming into contact with products from mammals (dairy, cosmetics, some vaccines, gelatin, gelatin coated medications, cosmetics, etc.) will trigger a mild to severe allergic reaction. The CDC states that reactions can include: rash, hives, nausea or vomiting, difficulty breathing, drop in blood pressure, dizziness, headache, and severe stomach pain.

Many medical professionals believe that alpha-gal syndrome is widely undiagnosed/misdiagnosed. In fact, in 2009 there were only 12 diagnosed cases. By 2019, that number had jumped to 34,000.

The biggest reason for this is due to the unique presentation of the symptoms. Most food allergy symptoms present almost immediately after exposure to the allergen. The CDC claims that, with alpha-gal syndrome, the symptoms often don’t present until 3 to 6 hours after exposure. When someone suffering from this ate a steak at 7 p.m. and began getting sick to their stomach somewhere between 10 and 12 p.m., doctors for years struggled to link the steak to the patient’s illness because it went against the way people typically react to most every other food allergy.

Though the medical community has been able to link tick bites to alpha-gal syndrome, it still doesn’t fully understand the disease process. Especially in terms of why some people are not affected at all by it while others have widely ranging allergic responses that vary from mild all the way to anaphylactic.