WASHINGTON (WHNT) — The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is warning the public of a significant rise in one tick-related disease, which could lead those affected to become allergic to meat and dairy products.
Health officials say that between 2010 and 2022, there were more than 110,000 suspected cases of the tick-bite disease known as alpha-gal syndrome (AGS), which can cause an allergic reaction after eating red meat, dairy products or even some ingredients in certain vaccines or medications.
Health officials said they are not aware of any confirmed deaths, but people with the allergy have described it as bewildering and terrifying.
“I never connected it with any food because it was hours after eating,” said one patient, Bernadine Heller-Greenman.
This specific tick-bite disease causes a reaction in the body to the alpha-gal sugar molecule found in meat, products made from animals – and tick spit. Mild symptoms range from rashes or digestive issues, while severe symptoms could lead to anaphylaxis.
However, the CDC says that because the diagnosis of AGS requires a positive test and a clinical exam, and some people with AGS may not get tested, it is now estimated that as many as 450,000 people might have been affected by the disease in the U.S., according to two reports from the CDC in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
The CDC states that onset symptoms typically occur between two to six hours after exposure to alpha-gal. Healthcare providers still know little about AGS and no treatment or cure is currently available.
In a study, 1,500 family and general practitioners, internists, pediatricians, nurse practitioners and physical assistants across the country were surveyed about AGS. Results show that 78 percent of the respondents had not heard about AGS, around one-third reported that they were not “too confident” in their ability to diagnose or manage patients with AGS and five percent felt “very confident” in their ability to diagnose patients with the disease.
“Alpha-gal syndrome is an important emerging public health problem, with potentially severe health impacts that can last a lifetime for some patients,” said Dr. Ann Carpenter. “It’s critical for clinicians to be aware of AGS so they can properly evaluate, diagnose, and manage their patients and also educate them on tick-bite prevention to protect patients from developing this allergic condition.”
Alpha-gal is a sugar molecule found in meat from mammals (pork, beef, rabbit, lamb, venison, etc.) and products made from them (gelatin, cow’s milk, milk products, and some pharmaceuticals). It is a serious allergic condition some people may experience after they consume food or products containing the sugar molecule.
So far, evidence shows that reactions most associated with AGS come from the ‘Lone-Star’ tick. Yet, other kinds of ticks have not been ruled out. Localities in the southern, Midwest, and mid-Atlantic regions of the United States identified more people who tested positive.
Symptoms to look out for include, but are not limited to:
- hives or itchy rashes
- nausea or vomiting
- heartburn or indigestion
- shortness of breath or difficulty breaking
- drop in blood pressure
- swelling of the lips, throat, tongue or eyelids
- dizziness or faintness
- severe stomach pains
AGS is diagnosed by an allergist or other healthcare provider and requires a thorough history with compatible symptoms and diagnostic testing for antibodies specific to the alpha-gal sugar molecule.
The CDC recommends wearing bug repellant and checking the body and clothes to avoid being bitten. To learn more about AGS from the CDC, visit their website here. If you think you have experienced symptoms compatible with AGS, visit your local allergist or other healthcare provider today.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.