Tamara Sluss prefers her bison burger without a side of life-threatening hives.
But she said that’s no longer a possibility, likely because of a lone star tick bite in 2006.
Sluss, an associate professor of biology at Kentucky State University, was diagnosed in July with an allergy to galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose — alpha-gal for short — after years of unexplained reactions.
Alpha-gal is type of carbohydrate present in mammalian meat including beef, pork, lamb, venison, goat and bison. When a person with the alpha-gal allergy eats meat, it triggers the release of histamine, which in turn causes symptoms like hives and itching.
In the most basic terms: The tick bite has likely caused her to be allergic to red meat.
Sluss remembers her first reaction vividly. She was pregnant with her second daughter and broke out at 5 a.m. while staying near Land Between the Lakes.
“I was pregnant and I was extremely fearful,” she said. “Luckily I was able to get Benadryl in that rural area.”
The outbreaks — about 20 in total — were sporadic since then, but she couldn’t pinpoint the cause.
Sluss didn’t eat meat often, and she had toyed with being a vegetarian when she was a teenager, so the outbreaks weren’t regular.
Only on occasion would Sluss order a Wendy’s cheeseburger or a bison burger — and she would later learn it was on those same occasions she would end up covered in hives.
“It’s very hard to put it together with the cause because of the delay,” Sluss said. “Whenever I searched hives, I never found anything that seemed conclusive. We’d go through all the allergy tests and also never find anything conclusive. It was pretty traumatic to keep going back to the doctor.”
Her allergist, Douglas Tzanetos of Kentuckiana Allergy in Louisville, said that’s the hallmark of the allergy — the delayed anaphylaxis, or severe allergic reaction, is rare in food allergies.
“With traditional food anaphylaxis, like a peanut allergy, the reaction occurs within a matter of minutes,” Tzanetos said. “But the hallmark of this, for reasons we don’t quite understand, is it occurs three to six hours after ingestion. That might make it hard to put two and two together.”
It wasn’t until April or May when Sluss had an epiphany on the way back from the Red River Gorge. She had stopped for a bison burger.
“My stomach was killing me,” she said. “I pulled over and slept. By the time I was in Louisville, I was in hives. On a whim, I searched bison allergy.”
That’s when she first heard of alpha-gal and its connection to tick bites. Although scientists have not conclusively proven that tick bites trigger the creation of the alpha-gal antibodies, the evidence for the connection is mounting.
Researchers at the University of Virginia have collected blood samples from more than 1,000 people with the alpha-gal allergy, and all reported having been bit by a tick.
And for Sluss, the connection makes sense. As an aquatic ecology teacher, she leads students into tick-ridden environments often — although she tries to avoid tall grasses now — and she’s also a climber.
Lee Townsend, an entomologist with the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, said the lone star tick is one of the most common ticks in Kentucky and they are most active between April and September.
As soon as Sluss made the association between the tick bite, eating meat and the reactions, she requested a blood test from Kentuckiana Allergy, which confirmed her suspicion: Her blood carries alpha-gal antibodies.
Tzanetos said anyone who believes they may be suffering from the alpha-gal reaction should consider a blood test.
“Here’s the key point: You will have negative food allergy skin tests, but that doesn’t rule out this condition,” he said.
Now that Sluss knows what was causing her reactions, she has reached a sort of peace of mind.
She’s not terribly upset about the lack of meat in her diet — although she said some people with alpha-gal will try to sneak a hamburger with an EpiPen at the ready — she’s just relieved she can avoid the allergic reactions.
“I’m scared to death parents will just lock their kids up when they learn about this, but it’s one of those things that reminds you that you can’t live life in fear,” she said.
Sluss emphasized she is not a medical doctor and cannot provide medical advice, but — as an ecologist — she’s interested in hearing about encounters Kentuckians have had with the lone star tick, which is identified by a white dot on its back. Experiences can be shared via the online survey Sluss compiled, or she can be reached by email at email@example.com.
Tips to avoid ticks
>Walk in the center of trails so weeds do not brush against you
>Use repellent that contains 20 to 30 percent DEET on exposed skin and always follow product instructions
>Use products that contain permethrin to treat clothing and gear such as boots, pants (especially the cuffs), socks and tents
>Tuck long pants into your socks and boots
>Wear light-colored pants so ticks are easier to spot
>In areas where there are ticks, check yourself, children and other family members every two to three hours, especially ears, hair, neck, legs and between the toes
>Ticks can hitch a ride on your pets, so check them often and use tick collars, sprays, shampoos or monthly “top spot” medications to help protect against ticks
>If you find a tick on you, yourself or others, remove it promptly with fine-point tweezers. Grasp it as close to the skin as possible and gently, but firmly, pull it straight out without twisting or jerking. Wash the bite area and your hands thoroughly with soap and water and apply an antiseptic to the bite site.
SOURCE: Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services