Ticks and Meat — Scary News

by Carole Jackson, Bottom Line Health

 You already know that tiny little ticks can bring on gigantic health problems — but I’ll bet you didn’t know that they have the potential to cause vulnerable people to develop a severe, even life-threatening, allergy to meat.

 Yes, meat. A surprising research report shows that meat allergies seem to be growing more common. This may be the result of an immune reaction that is kicked off by bites from ticks. It gets a bit complicated, however, so let’s start by taking these two topics — meat allergies and tick bites — one at a time. I promise there’s a link… and it’s a little scary if you’re among the susceptible group.

 Meat Allergies on the Rise

 The new research was triggered by the observation that meat allergy seemed to be on the rise, I was told by Scott Commins, MD, PhD, an allergist and immunologist at the University of Virginia who led the study. Meat allergies have been considered rare but not unheard of — however they differ from conventional food allergies in many ways that can make diagnosis difficult.

 Slow to React

 For one thing, symptoms of an allergic response to meat typically don’t appear until three to six hours after eating, while other food allergies produce symptoms in minutes. The reason? The substance that causes the body to develop antibodies — at the root of the allergic response — is found in greater abundance in fats, which are absorbed slowly.

 The most practical way to identify a meat allergy is to take note of whether symptoms arise predictably (within a few hours) after eating it. Beef is the most common allergy-causing meat, Dr. Commins said, but pork, lamb and indeed any mammalian meat (think animals with hooves) can be problematic. Pay attention if you experience itching after eating these meats — and, if you notice that meats cause a reaction, keep track of whether removing all meat from your diet makes symptoms vanish altogether.

 Tick, Tock — Why Now?

 To verify whether this meat allergy was indeed more widespread than had been previously thought, researchers at the University of Virginia, the University of Tennessee and the John James Medical Center in Australia examined 60 patients, all of whom had had at least one incidence of unexplained anaphylaxis. Examining their medical records for clues revealed that the vast majority (more than 90%) had reported tick bites. In susceptible people, tick bites can trigger production of an antibody that binds to a carbohydrate and causes the release of histamines — hence the allergic response. The test results showed that more than 40% (25 patients) had a positive reaction that indicated they were allergic to meat — far higher than the less than 5% that had previously been estimated.

 The researchers believe that the allergy can be set off by a bite from any and all ticks, including dog ticks, deer ticks, etc. Interestingly, people with certain blood types — specifically, the rarer ones, B and AB — appear to be less likely to develop a meat allergy than people with more common blood types. The allergic reaction seems to be more prevalent in the South as well — Dr. Commins said that this might be because Southerners are more likely to live in rural areas, close to woods, where they are in contact with ticks.

 What you can do

 First of all, this is yet another reason why it is important to take precautions to avoid exposure to all ticks and to remove them quickly if you find one on your body. Also, if you’ve eaten meat…

  • Be alert to unexplained symptoms that could be allergic reactions, including itching, swelling, rash, hives or intestinal irritation. More severe symptoms, such as chaotic heartbeat, airway constriction, rapid drop in blood pressure or loss of consciousness, indicate anaphylactic shock, which is a medical emergency.
  • If you notice recurrent mild allergy symptoms, keep a food diary to track whether your reactions correlate to eating meat. In addition, visit a board-certified allergist for an evaluation. Dr. Commins says that he encourages allergists to do a series of blood tests for beef, pork, lamb, chicken and turkey. “If all the tests for the red meats are positive, but negative for the other two, the patient probably is allergic to meat,” he says.
  • Benadryl can be helpful in quelling allergic reactions limited to the skin or gastrointestinal system, but be aware that your reaction can progress to a more serious one — in which case you should seek medical help.

Overall, this allergy is still quite unusual, says Dr. Cummins, so don’t be overly concerned, but if you start itching after a weekend barbecue, don’t be too quick to blame it on mosquitoes!


Scott P. Commins, MD, PhD, allergist and immunologist, University of Virginia, Charlottesville.