What it’s like to live with an allergy to red meat caused by a tick
First, her hands began to itch, then the soles of her feet. Her lips became swollen, and her airways constricted.
Sharon Fletcher was on a road trip with her son and daughter-in-law. They were outside Abilene, Kan, and Fletcher had just eaten a hamburger.
She hasn’t eaten one since.
Fletcher was experiencing an allergic reaction. She would later be diagnosed with alpha gal, an allergy brought on by red meat that includes symptoms such as hives, itching, gastrointestinal discomfort and even anaphylactic shock. Fletcher likely contracted the allergy from the lone star tick — common in Missouri and Kansas — that had first bitten a mammal other than a human or primate and transferred its blood to her.
“This was a life-threatening thing,” Fletcher told The Star this week, about a year after her son and daughter-in-law rushed her to a hospital in Abilene. “The doctor there said with just a few more minutes it would have been a total shut down.”
The reaction was difficult to diagnose. Symptoms of the allergy often don’t manifest until hours after consuming meat. It was discovered just eight years ago by researchers at the University of Virginia — making it a still relatively new condition in the medical world. And what’s more, the allergy can take multiple weeks to develop after it’s spread by the lone star tick.
Fletcher and others in the area who have the allergy said they quickly learned how prevalent byproducts of meat are in the American diet. Douglas Pickert of De Soto, who was diagnosed about six months ago, said he must now avoid Jell-O (made with gelatin, a concoction made by boiling the skin and bones of certain domesticated animals), certain cereals with pork derivatives in the form of gelatin, marshmallows, refried beans (made with lard), and a bag of potatoes he once purchased, only to find out they had been flavored with lard.
Krystal Grossnickle of Kansas City was diagnosed five years ago. She, too, expressed surprise at how many foods were suddenly off-limits, such as vegetarian soups made with a meat-based broth and candy such as Snickers, Skittles and M&Ms made with gelatin.
“If I could somehow send a message to the food preparation industry, I’d say ‘please get over your addiction to putting animals in everything,’ ” she said.
At the Abilene hospital, Fletcher was discharged with the direction to contact an allergist as soon as she returned to her home, near Smithville Lake. She contacted a Kansas City allergist, Zach Jacobs, who diagnosed her.
Jacobs has been in practice since 2011 in the area, and he estimated he’s diagnosed about 15 people with the allergy in that time. Chiggers, a type of mite, can also pass the allergy to humans, Jacobs said.
Fletcher, meanwhile, is becoming accustomed to life with the allergy. “It’s probably good for my health,” she said. “I’ve lost five pounds, and I’m getting creative cooking with turkey and chicken.”
Pickert, too, reported feeling more healthy and losing about eight pounds since his January diagnosis.
There are still unknowns for sufferers. Some people bitten by the lone star will develop the allergy to a sugar molecule found in mammalian meat where others do not. “If someone is prone to the allergy, for reasons we don’t understand, they will develop it,” Jacobs said.
Some become sensitive to dairy products. Some don’t.
Symptoms can fade or even disappear with time, but because of its newness, it’s still unknown just how long the allergy can remain in someone’s system.
“For some people, the allergy fades, but not often,” Jacobs said. “It’s really a fascinating allergy.”
Subsequent bites from the tick can reactivate the allergy, intensifying symptoms and keeping them from fading.
Avoiding another bite from the lone star tick has become a prime concern for those who have the allergy. Pickert said he’s changed the paths he walks his dogs on, and he makes checks on his body often for ticks.
“It’s not a tragedy, it’s an inconvenience,” Pickert said. “It’s not really diminishing the quality of my life.”
To extract a tick, use fine-tipped tweezers to grab an attached tick close to the skin and pull straight up with a steady motion until removed
The Missouri Department of Health offers tips for preventing tick bites:
▪ Wear light-colored long pants, long sleeves and socks treated with permethrin
▪ Apply insect repellents with 20-50 percent DEET on skin and clothing
▪ Children 2 months and older, use a repellent 30 percent or less DEET
▪ Check frequently for ticks