A tick bite could change your diet

Modern Healthcare - - OUTLIERS ASIDES & INSIDES -

A bug can turn you into a veg­e­tar­ian, or at least make you swear off red meat. Doc­tors across the na­tion are see­ing a surge of sud­den meat al­ler­gies in peo­ple bit­ten by a cer­tain kind of tick.

This bizarre prob­lem was dis­cov­ered only a few years ago but is grow­ing as the ticks spread from the South­west and the East to other parts of the U.S. In some cases, eat­ing a burger or a steak has landed peo­ple in the hos­pi­tal with se­vere al­ler­gic re­ac­tions.

Few pa­tients seem aware of the risk, and even doc­tors are slow to rec­og­nize it. As one al­ler­gist who has seen 200 cases on New York’s Long Is­land said, “Why would some­one think they’re al­ler­gic to meat when they’ve been eat­ing it their whole life?”

The cul­prit is the Lone Star tick, named for Texas, a state fa­mous for meaty bar­be­cues. The tick is now found through­out the South and the east­ern half of the U.S.

The bugs har­bor a sugar that hu­mans don’t have called al­pha­gal. The sugar is also found in red meat and even some dairy prod­ucts. It’s usu­ally fine when peo­ple en­counter it through food.

But a tick bite trig­gers an im­mune-sys­tem re­sponse, and in that high-alert state, the body per­ceives the sugar the tick trans­mit­ted to the vic­tim’s blood­stream and skin as a for­eign sub­stance and makes an­ti­bod­ies to fight it. That sets the stage for an al­ler­gic re­ac­tion the next time the per­son eats red meat.

It hap­pened in 2013 to Louise Danzig, 63, a re­tired nurse from Long Is­land. Hours after eat­ing a burger, “I woke up with very swollen hands that were on fire with itch­ing,” she said. By the time she made a phone call for help, “I was los­ing my abil­ity to speak and my air­way was clos­ing.” She had had re­cent tick bites, and a blood test con­firmed the meat al­lergy.

At the Univer­sity of Vir­ginia in Char­lottesville, “I see two to three new cases ev­ery week,” said Dr. Scott Com­mins, who cowrote the first pa­per ty­ing the tick to the ill­ness in 2011.

En­to­mol­o­gist Colin Bram­mer dis­plays a Lone Star tick at his lab in Raleigh, N.C.

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