Bite from Lone Star tick can lead to life-changing allergic reaction

It’s no secret that ticks are aggravating insects that pass along diseases. But ticks can also cause a rare, life-changing allergic reaction to red meat.

Rob Attaway first broke out in hives 12 years ago. He says the itching lasted for hours and was unbearable.

“Literally, you could sometimes not even hardly think because you’re itching,” said Attaway. He suffered for nine years before finally getting answers from an allergist.

“We found the problem, and I stopped eating red meat. Within three days, everything started to clear up.”

Attaway tested positive for what is called “Alpha-Gal Syndrome.” It is a delayed allergic reaction to red meat. It is caused by a bite from a tick called “the Lone Star tick,” which is common in eastern Oklahoma.

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Attaway enjoys playing disc golf and hiking, and that’s how he believes he got the bite.

Jim Dickerson also suffers from Alpha-Gal Syndrome.

“My face went numb completely. I went and looked into the mirror and I was so contorted. I thought I was having a stroke,” said Dickerson. “It’s the worst pain I’ve ever experienced.”

Dickerson believes he received a bite while vacationing in Florida. He initially passed out when using a leaf blower in his yard. Dickerson’s blood pressure dropped severely from the syndrome, causing him to fall and break his back.

Now, both Attaway and Dickerson can no longer eat their favorite foods, like pork ribs and hot dogs. Both men say they eat a lot of chicken, turkey, fish, and plant-based meat alternatives.

Even with avoiding meat, eating at restaurants or a friend’s house can be dangerous.

“One of the dishes I ate was probably cooked and seasoned with maybe a ham hock or a piece of pork. And that was just enough to trigger that reaction,” said Dickerson.

Attaway found out that even some medications, like Claritin, can trigger a response.

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Dr. Ted Lee with Peachtree Allergy & Asthma Clinic has seen more than 100 Alpha-Gal Syndrome patients over the past 37 years. He says it’s spread to people by a tick that has probably also feed on a deer or cow.

“It brings those chemicals, those antigens from that mammal into the human when it feeds on them,” said Dr. Lee. “And then it causes an aberrant immune response.”

Right now, there is no cure for Alpha-Gal Syndrome.

Dr. Lee says it is important to inspect your body for ticks after spending time outside. These simple steps can help you avoid this life-changing condition.

Both Attaway and Dickerson have not had any major outbreaks since their diagnosis. But both carry an EpiPen, just incase they eat red meat. The reaction could cause their throats to close up and cut off their oxygen supply.

“I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy,” said Attaway.