Life-Threatening Syndrome on the Rise

( – A rare but potentially deadly syndrome is on the rise in many parts of the United States. The lone star tick, whose habitat spans across nearly half of the United States, is responsible for the surge — although no disease infection is necessary for a person to succumb to the condition’s effects, which leave victims unable to consume red meat. Even worse, there’s no treatment and no cure.

Alpha-gal syndrome has only been on the CDC’s radar since 2008, and there are still many doctors who’ve never even heard of it. A response occurs in some people after being bitten by a lone star tick, which carries alpha-gal sugar molecules in its saliva.

A phenomenon called molecular mimicry is likely responsible for the effects. The body associates the molecules with other proteins and sugars introduced alongside the tick bite, sending out an immune response. In the case of alpha-gal syndrome, defenses home in on the sugar molecule, which is present in red meat, as though it were an allergen. Responses to its presence can range from uncomfortable to deadly.

The CDC states that symptoms can include itchy rashes, heartburn, stomach pain, diarrhea, nausea and vomiting, difficulty breathing, low blood pressure, and facial swelling. Most symptoms appear two to six hours after eating red meat. The sugar is also present in mammalian organ meat, lard, broth, gravy, and many gelatin and milk products. Certain medications, including heparin, antivenom, and monoclonal antibodies, also contain the trigger.

Because people who develop alpha-gal syndrome appear to be stuck with it, prevention is the only way to avoid potentially life-long reactions. Tick safety is key. People living in areas where the lone star tick appears, which include most of the southern, central, and eastern states, should avoid moving through grassy, brushy areas, keep to hiking trails, and pretreat clothing with pyrethrin. Additionally, use an EPA-approved insect repellent to keep ticks away and treat pets and outdoor spaces proactively.

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