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Tick bites could cause red meat allergy

Saturday - 5/24/2014, 3:31am  ET

lonestarTick_CDC.jpg
Researchers at the University of Virginia's School of Medicine say they have found a connection between multiple bites from lone star ticks (pictured here) and a red meat allergy.(U.S. Centers for Disases Control and Prevention)

WASHINGTON - You enjoy a good burger and have never had problems eating it, but then one day you bite into one and you break out in hives. Why the sudden reaction? It could be that brush with ticks a few days ago.

May is Tick Borne Disease Awareness month and you may be aware of diseases such as Lyme disease which can result from a bite. But researchers at the University of Virginia's School of Medicine say they have found a connection between multiple bites from lone star ticks, which despite its name can be found in the Mid-Atlantic, and a red meat allergy.

Dr. Thomas Platts-Mills, with the University of Virginia's School of Medicine, believes an unknown substance in ticks' saliva can make some people allergic to the alpha-gal sugar, which is found in red meat.

He says most cases they have found began with multiple bites.The bite marks may last for weeks and itch. Then sometime down the road, the presence of the allergy is realized.

"The food allergy doesn't happen immediately, it takes three, four or five hours after eating a beefsteak, hamburger or pork," Platts-Mills said.

The school has collected data on 2,000 cases. Nationwide there could be as many as 10,000 cases. In Lynchburg, Virginia, allergists have confirmed 350 cases.

Platts-Mills expects the numbers of cases to rise as more people determine what is causing their unusual allergic reaction.

He says the increase in cases could be due to a vibrant population of the blood suckers.

"Having deer in a yards, which we now do, there are a lot of ticks, we think, far more ticks on lawns then there ever were before," he said.

For some sufferers, the symptoms includes hives or intestinal spasms. In more severe reactions, a person can go into anaphylactic shock.

For many patients, a trip to the doctor might not result in the correct diagnosis. Platts-Mills says some patients have been told they are suffering from other conditions.

"Skin testing doesn't diagnose it very well, and it's much better diagnosed with a blood test," he said.

To treat the condition, patients should try to eat like a vegetarian and pass on red meats including beef, lamb and pork for a time.

"Some people have really been forced to change their diet," he says.

But after a while, for most patients "if they don't get more tick bites, it goes away," Platts-Mills says.

Most patients who develop the red meat allergy are older than 60.

"It's a much older population of allergic patients than we're used to," he said. But younger people are also falling victim.

He says if you love red meat, the best advice is to wear long pants outdoors and stay away from long grass. "The moment you go into long grass, you'll get ticks pretty rapidly."

Also he says use bug sprays with DEET, which helps keep the ticks away.

Learn more about the lone star tick from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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