In the United States, the Lone Star tick is most common in Southeast Texas, Iowa, and New England. However, cases of the allergy have been noted in other parts of the country, including Hawaii, where the tick does not typically live.
The alpha-gal allergy was only identified in 2006 and doctors are still learning about the condition. Cases of alpha-gal allergy are becoming increasingly common but are still considered rare.
When alpha-gal enters the body, via a tick bite or otherwise, the immune system produces antibodies to fight the molecule.
Allergy researcher Thomas Platts-Mills of the University of Virginia started studying the alpha-gal reaction in 2002 after discovering an allergic reaction to the cancer drug cetuximab.
Cetuximab contains the same alpha-gal sugar as meat, although the association was not made with tick bites until Platts-Mills himself was later bitten by ticks and developed the allergy.
It remains unclear exactly what substance in the tick’s saliva causes the development of alpha-gal antibodies.
Most people discover they have an alpha-gal allergy after eating red meat. However, they can also have a reaction after eating foods that contain gelatin or taking medications that use gelatin as a stabilizer.
Common symptoms of an alpha-gal allergy include:
stuffy or running nose
shortness of breath
An anaphylactic reaction restricts breathing and can be fatal, so it needs immediate medical treatment. Although rare, it has been known for people with an alpha-gal allergy to be admitted to the intensive care unit (ICU).