Galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose, or alpha-gal for short, is a life changing and possibly a life threatening chain of allergic reactions caused by the bite of a lone star tick. This is not a disease like Lyme disease or Rocky Mountain spotted fever — it is an allergy. When a person with the alpha-gal antibody eats mammalian meat, the meat triggers the release of histamine which in turn causes allergic symptoms like itching and hives. Severe reactions lead to anaphylaxis or a sudden weakness, a drop in blood pressure and unconsciousness. I have been rendered unconscious, requiring life-saving maneuvers on several occasions. Today, I carry an Epi-Pen everywhere I go.
Alpha-gal has been around for a long time, however, it was only officially “discovered” in 2009 at the University of Virginia. It is essentially a bunch of sugars stuck together in the blood, which is in the meat of all non-primate mammals, including cows, deer, dogs, horses, goats, etc. This allergy is different from other food allergies in that the response is delayed, often for 4-6 hours after ingesting mammal meat. In addition to the aforementioned symptoms of itching and hives, some patients report abdominal cramping, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or swelling of lips and tongue. These are the symptoms I had in the beginning that was always diagnosed as either food poisoning or gall bladder attacks simply because this is such a new condition.
Not everyone who is bitten by a tick will develop this allergy . Some people do not have the alpha-gal enzyme that causes their body to react violently to mammalian meats and some people will react to only one or two meats. There are many unanswered questions about this very real threat to anyone that spends time outdoors in tick country. The UVA has ongoing studies about the causes, symptoms and possible treatment of this serious problem. A simple blood test can determine if you have this allergy, however, since this is a relatively new discovery, many doctors are not acquainted with it yet, so it may be best to see an allergist. It took multiple ambulance rides and trips to emergency rooms all over the country before allergy specialist Dr. Keegan Smith, at Heritage Medical Center in Nashville, TN, correctly diagnosed my problem.
At this time there is no known treatment except to avoid all mammal meat. Fish and fowl do not have the allergen plus they offer a healthy source of protein. Many people with Alpha-Gal find they lose weight and have lower LDL cholesterol levels. Avoiding tick bites altogether is always recommended but for some of us that is an impossibility. However, I do recommend taking every precaution possible to minimize the number of ticks that latch onto you during the warm weather months ahead. Even though I already have the Alpha-gal allergen, I continue to diligently spray all my hunting clothes including turkey vest and boots liberally with Permethrin and seal them in a garbage bag before and after each hunt. I also spray the ground and tree trunks before I sit down. Additionally, I wear a base layer of Rynoskin under regular hunting clothes to prevent the pests from getting to my skin. I’m hearing good reports of a line of hunting wear called Elimitick which I will be trying this season. The bottom line is that ticks are found almost everywhere and it is nearly impossible to prevent getting bitten. While I can no longer enjoy a juicy hamburger or even bacon with my eggs, I refuse to allow an insect to deny me the pleasure of turkey hunting or enjoying the outdoors.
You can find much more information about Alpha-gal online as well as sources for testing and the most current research findings. Hopefully there will be a cure discovered in the near future. In the meantime, enjoy time outdoors but watch out for ticks.