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Bad Bite: Tick Can Trigger Meat Allergy, Doctors Say

Image: Lone Star tick
This undated photo provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows a Lone Star tick. Doctors across the nation are seeing a surge of sudden red-meat allergies in people bitten by the tick. James Gathany / AP

Doctors across the nation are seeing a surge of sudden meat allergies in people bitten by a certain kind of tick. This bizarre problem was only discovered a few years ago but is growing as the ticks spread from the Southwest and the East to more parts of the United States. In some cases, eating a burger or a steak has landed people in the hospital with severe allergic reactions.

The culprit is the Lone Star tick. The bugs harbor a sugar that humans don't have, called alpha-gal. The sugar is also is found in red meat — beef, pork, venison, rabbit — and even some dairy products. It's usually fine when people encounter it through food that gets digested. But a tick bite triggers an immune system response, and in that high-alert state, the body perceives the sugar the tick transmitted to the victim's bloodstream and skin as a foreign substance, and makes antibodies to it. That sets the stage for an allergic reaction the next time the person eats red meat. At the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, "I see two to three new cases every week," said Dr. Scott Commins, who with a colleague, Dr. Thomas Platts-Mills, published the first paper tying the tick to the illness in 2011.

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— The Associated Press