Hours after Louise Danzig, 63, ate a hamburger she woke up with swollen, itchy, burning hands. Minutes later, her lips and tongue began to swell. Panicked, she picked up the phone to call for help when she realized “I was losing my ability to speak and my airway was closing.”
Doctors tested her blood and confirmed she had a meat allergy. But what could have caused it? Louise had been eating red meat for the past six decades. The culprit was later identified as a bite from the Lone Star tick, named for Texas, the state famous for its steaks. The species of tick is now common throughout the South and eastern United States. One bite, and its victims develop an allergy to red meat.
These Lone Star ticks have a sugar called alpha-gal, which is also found in animals that have red meat, including beef, pork, venison and rabbit. Some dairy products contain this sugar as well. In general, humans can digest this sugar without any adverse response. However, a bite from the Lone Star tick triggers an immune system response, causing the body to produce antibodies to the sugar. That leads to an allergic reaction the next time the bite victim consumes red meat.
Doctors say they have seen a growing number of meat allergies in people who have never before had the allergy from people who have recently had tick bites. Dr. Erin McGintee, an allergy specialist in Long Island, says she has seen almost 200 cases in the past three years. At least 30 involved children, including some as young as 4.
The allergies can be treated with antihistamines. More severe cases can be treated with epinephrine. Doctors are unsure whether the allergy is permanent, and some worry that the subsequent attacks could be worse. Those who have suffered attacks say they are reluctant to eat red meat again.
“I’ll never have another hamburger, I’m sure,” Louise says. “I definitely do not want to have that happen to me again.”