Recently the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released two reports on alpha-gal syndrome (AGS), a little-known, life-threatening food allergy also known as the “red meat allergy.” The reports showed:
- The prevalence is on the rise and underdiagnosed.
- Nearly half of U.S. physicians were unaware of AGS and many revealed a “lack of confidence” in diagnosing and managing the condition.
AGS is primarily associated with the bite of a Lone Star tick found in the Southeastern and Eastern states. The Lone Star tick transmits a sugar molecule called alpha-gal into the body and in some people, this triggers an immune system reaction that later produces allergic reactions when they eat red meat. This can include beef, pork, rabbit, lamb, or venison and some products made from mammals like cheese, milk, other dairy products, and gelatin. Although people in all age groups can get AGS, most cases reported occur in adults.
Reactions can vary in severity and often take hours to develop, whereas allergic reactions to other foods usually develop immediately. This delay has led to difficulty in connecting the food to the reaction and why researchers believe the condition was overlooked until recent years.
“Alpha-Gal allergy is one of the most difficult diagnoses seen by allergists,” says Stanley Fineman, M.D., allergist with Atlanta Allergy & Asthma. “Symptoms can be variable and can be life-threatening, so it is important to see an experienced allergist to get an accurate diagnosis when a reaction to any food is suspected.”
Fineman went on to say that the increase in cases reported in the studies is consistent in what they have seen in their practice over the several years. Allergists make the diagnosis, which is confirmed by a blood test, by performing a clinical exam and symptom discussion.
The CDC believes cases of AGS are underreported and cite lack of access to a board-certified allergist in some areas of the country as one of the reasons.
AGS treatment includes patients avoiding foods with alpha-gal and taking medications to manage symptoms that may occur with accidental exposure. In many cases, injectable epinephrine will be prescribed.
Symptoms may lessen or disappear over time, especially if the patient doesn’t get additional tick bites. New tick bites may reactivate allergic reactions to alpha-gal.