If You Notice This After Eating Meat, Call Your Doctor, Experts Warn
This health problem is becoming more prevalent due to the rise of one widespread pest.
Despite the popularity of vegan and vegetarian diets, a majority of people in the U.S. still do eat meat. In fact, according to a 2021 survey from Ipsos, 9 in 10 Americans currently include meat as part of their diet. With that in mind, it won't be hard for most to spot the symptoms of a concerning health condition that's becoming more and more of a problem thanks to another rising trend. Researchers are warning that the increasing prevalence of one pest across the country could have serious consequences for people's eating habits. Read on to find out what symptoms you should be looking out for.
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Lone star ticks are being found in more places around the U.S.
Researchers have recently found that the presence of one troublesome tick is growing across the U.S., The New York Times reported on May 13. According to the newspaper, the lone star tick—named as such because of the white blotch on females' back—is usually found in the southern part of the country, but experts have started to spot this pest in increasing numbers in parts of the Midwest and the Northwest. Scientists say that this expansion is largely due to global warming, as the ticks have more time to feed on hosts and reproduce when there are more hot days each year.
"What we're now seeing is a wide open door for ticks to continue expanding their range further northward; bringing more people into the fold of the arthropod-borne diseases," Michael Raupp, PhD, a professor emeritus in entomology at the University of Maryland, told The New York Times. "We're venturing into uncharted waters in so many dimensions with climate change."
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This tick can trigger a meat allergy in some people.
The lone star tick can spread a number of diseases and health concerns, but one of the most worrying is alpha-gal syndrome (AGS). According to the Mayo Clinic, this condition is "a recently identified type of food allergy to red meat and other products made from mammals," most commonly caused by a bite from a lone star tick. Researchers first started noticing an allergic reaction from alpha-gal in 2006, but they did not connect it to tick bites until several year later, The New York Times reported.
"The bite transmits a sugar molecule called alpha-gal into the person's body," the Mayo Clinic explains. "In some people, this triggers an immune system reaction that later produces mild to severe allergic reactions to red meat, such as beef, pork or lamb, or other mammal products."
If you notice certain symptoms after eating meat, you could have alpha-gal syndrome.
Food allergies are not always severe, but AGS is a "serious, potentially life-threatening allergic reaction," the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warns. According to the agency, symptoms of this condition usually arise two to six hours after eating meat or dairy and can include any of the following: hives, an itchy rash, nausea, vomiting, heartburn, indigestion, diarrhea, cough, shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, a drop in blood pressure, dizziness, faintness, severe stomach pain, and swelling of the lips, throat, tongue, or eyelids.
Deborah Fleshman, a former nurse who has been diagnosed with alpha-gal syndrome, told The New York Times that her symptoms started in 2008 when she woke up to legs that had turned beetroot red and a torso covered in welts, with some being a foot wide. At the time, she said she felt like she was "dying."
"It feels like you're on fire, and then it feels like you slept with a cactus," she said. "The itching is unbearable."
You should call your doctor if you think you have AGS.
An AGS reaction can also look quite different from person to person, and those with the condition might not have an allergic response every single time they're exposed to meat, according to the CDC. "It's never predictable. I know people that spend the night in the emergency room parking lot, waiting for a reaction," Jennifer Platt, an adjunct professor in public health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a co-founder of the nonprofit Tick-Borne Conditions United, explained to The New York Times.
Regardless, you should be discussing the possibility of AGS with your doctor if you experience any symptoms related to the condition—especially if you know you've been bitten by a tick. According to the CDC, AGS should be treated and managed under the care of healthcare providers, as patients might have to avoid certain foods, products, vaccines, and medications.
"If you think you may have AGS, go talk to your healthcare provider," the agency advises. "AGS can be severe, and even life-threatening. Seek immediate emergency care if you are having a severe allergic reaction."
Thousands of people in the U.S. have tested positive for the condition.
A 2014 study in the Journal of Medical Entomology reported that the lone star tick had already been located in 39 states by 2012. According to The New York Times, some maps indicate that the lone star tick has advanced as far west as Nebraska and as far northeast as Maine, with possibility that the tick has or can establish a presence in Washington, Oregon, and California as well.
"The spatial distribution of the species has definitely increased by at least 30 to 50 percent in the last half a century," Ram Raghavan, PhD, an assistant professor in epidemiology and disease ecology at the University of Missouri who has mapped the lone star tick's spread, told the newspaper.
As the presence of lone star ticks increases, so have instances of alpha-gal syndrome. As of 2018, more than 34,000 people in the U.S. have tested positive for the condition, according to a paper published in April 2021. Per the New York Times, a publicly generated map indicates that AGS has hit individuals as far as Washington and Hawaii.
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