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A New Reason to Hate Ticks

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Brenda Valentine

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Galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose, alpha-gal for short, is a life changing and possibly life threatening chain of allergic reactions caused by the bite of a lone star tick. This is not a disease like Rocky Mountain spotted fever or Lyme disease; 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 such as itching and hives. Severe reactions lead to anaphylaxis or a sudden weakness, a drop in blood pressure and unconsciousness.

How it Affects Me

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 deer, dogs, horses, goats, etc. This allergy is different from other food allergies in that the response is delayed, often 4 to 6 hours. In addition to 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, which was always diagnosed as food poisoning or gall bladder attacks.

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 who spends time outdoors in tick country. The university 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 it is a relatively new discovery, many doctors are not acquainted with it, so it may be best to see an allergist. It took multiple ambulance rides and trips to emergency rooms all over the country before an allergy specialist in Nashville correctly diagnosed me.

At this time there is no known treatment except to avoid all mammal meat. Fish and fowl do not have the allergen, plus they are a healthy source of protein.

Avoiding tick bites altogether is always best, but for some of us who spend a lot of time in the outdoors, that is almost impossible. You should, however, take every precaution to minimize the number of ticks that latch onto you during the warm weather months. Even though I already have the alpha-gal allergen, I still diligently spray 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've also heard good reports of a line of hunting wear called Elimitick, which I hope to try this season.

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. Hopefully, there will be a cure in the near future. Until then, protect yourself and get tested if my story and symptoms sound familiar. Stay safe out there this spring.

Brenda Valentine



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