Can an insect bite make you allergic to meat?

July 31, 2012
Volume 09    |   Issue 31

If you’ve ever spent much time in your garden, hiking, or enjoying the shade of a beautiful tree, you may have discovered a nasty tick biting you. Finding a tick attached to your skin is an unsettling finding. Most people are aware that some kinds of ticks carry Lyme disease and pose other health risks. But now researchers have found something even more life-threatening coming from a tick bite – they can make you allergic to red meat.

Researchers at the Virginia Commonwealth University found that ticks may cause people to develop a meat allergy. And this isn’t the type of allergy that makes you sneeze or gives you a tummy ache. This allergy can cause a delayed anaphylaxis. In other words, you could eat meat for dinner and wake up three to six hours later unable to breathe. What’s worse, there’s no way to know ahead of time if you’ll have the reaction. It just hits.

Not all tick bites will produce the allergy. And not all of the allergies that do develop will be anaphylactic. Some will be as simple as itchy hives.

Susan Wolver, MD, Diane Sun, MD, and their colleagues wanted to find out what was causing the sudden meat allergy. It’s a relatively new phenomenon that started in the southeastern U.S. But no one knew why the allergy developed.

These researchers examined three patient case studies and found a common link in all three cases. Each of them had antibodies to a carbohydrate (alpha-gal). These antibodies develop in your blood after the tick bites (specifically the Lone Star tick). Lone Star ticks are aggressive females. They have a white spot, or star, on the center of their back.

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While alpha-gal is a carbohydrate, you’ll find it predominantly in meat. Once a tick bites you, your body begins developing these antibodies. Then, when you eat meat, you begin to react to it. The reaction is a release of histamine, which produces hives and anaphylaxis.

This is the first allergic reaction due to a carbohydrate rather than a protein. And it’s unusual in that the reaction is typically delayed. Most anaphylactic reactions occur immediately after exposure.

So what can you do to avoid this life-threatening allergy? First, avoid ticks at all costs. I’m not a fan of insect repellants. But some of the natural repellants may help. Just make sure the product you choose says it repels ticks. Not all of them do. But don’t rely on the repellant alone. Take other steps to avoid ticks. Make sure you wear white socks (so it’s easier to see the ticks) and long pants. They’re easier to see if you’re wearing light clothing.

Then, while hiking, make sure you don’t brush up against trees. Walk in the middle of the trail. And shower immediately after getting inside and inspect your entire body. If you find one, don’t just grab the tweezers and pull. Removing them successfully can be tricky. Make sure you have a tick removal kit (you can find them at your local hardware store) on hand. Do not try to kill the tick with methylated spirits or any other chemicals. This may cause the tick to inject more toxins.

While this type of allergy is rare, it can happen. Take as many precautions as you can, as prevention is much better than treatment.

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