Ticks Are Causing 'Meat Allergies' to Rise, and It May Actually Be Time to Worry

outdoor bbq
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Why should you never invite a lone star tick to a BBQ? The punchline's a killer. (Literally.) This particular type of tick can trigger an allergy to red meat. And we don't just mean a stuffy nose. Think hives, vomiting, a nasty headache, and, in worst case scenarios, trouble breathing.

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So how exactly do you get a life-threatening meat allergy from a rando tick that crawls onto you during a hike?

"Basically, red meat allergy may occur after developing an allergy to a sugar molecule called alpha-gal that's found in all mammals," explains Andrew S. Kim, MD, medical director of the Allergy & Asthma Center of Fairfax, Virginia.

How this happens brings to mind the story of the old woman who swallowed a fly.

"First, a tick bites an animal -- for example a deer," Dr. Kim explains. "Next, the tick bites a human being and transfers the alpha-gal from the deer to the human. Then, the human develops an allergy to alpha-gal. Finally, after ingestion of red meat, an allergic reaction may occur."

And if you're allergic to one type of meat, you'll likely also develop an allergic reaction to others. It's a paleo's worst nightmare: No beef, no chicken, no turkey, no pork...

Meat allergies aren't very common, but they do seem to be increasing, Dr. Kim says. "It was first described in 2009 with 24 cases. Then a few hundred cases a year later," he says. "Now, there are a few thousand known cases in the US. The majority have been in the Southeast, but there are reports of cases spreading to Midwestern and northern states."

More from CafeMom: 10 Things Never to Say to a Mom of a Kid with Food Allergies

Although the tick–red meat connection is already well-known among allergists, it's probably news to you. Which means that you're likely asking: "How do I know if I have it?"

"Most food allergies occur immediately within minutes to a couple of hours so the culprit is obvious," says Dr. Kim. "However, red meat allergy is often harder to diagnose as symptoms may occur three to eight hours after ingestion."

Translation: You won't necessarily bite into a hot dog at a BBQ and start sneezing, but once you go home, put the kids to bed, and watch an ep (or two) of OITNB, you could start feeling like crap.

Mild symptoms may involve itching or hives, Dr. Kim notes. But just like with a peanut allergy, you could have a reaction that can be far more intense -- and even life-threatening.

"Severe reactions may include difficulty breathing, systemic hives, vomiting, and facial swelling," he warns.

In which case you'll need to be treated with an EpiPen and get yourself to the hospital stat.

A way to treat meat allergies is in the works. (It could very well come in the form of allergy shots.) In the meantime, avoid wooded, brushy areas where ticks hang out. After spending time outdoors, give yourself a full-body check and remove any ticks you see. Don't forget to also go over your pets and gear.

If you think you are having an allergic reaction to meat, talk to an allergist. And do yourself a favor and find a good grilled tofu recipe.

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