Alpha-galactose syndrome (AGS) is an allergic reaction to red meat and other mammal products (such as milk products or gelatin) containing the carbohydrate molecule galactose-alpha-1. This sugar molecule is not found in fish, reptiles, birds, or people.
AGS is generally caused by a bite from a Lone Star tick. As far as we know, ticks that cause alpha-gal syndrome carry alpha-gal molecules from the blood of the animals that they have bitten. When one of these ticks bite a human, the tick injects alpha-gal into the person’s body.
Lone Star ticks have historically been more concentrated in the Southeastern states, but are slowly making their way through other regions, particularly the Midwest, affecting states such as Missouri and Kansas. Unfortunately, as summers get hotter and last longer, the tick season in Missouri is also getting longer and more severe, according to researchers in Missouri and Illinois.
Bites from chiggers and other ticks can also cause this syndrome. It is important to note that not everyone who gets bitten by a Lone Star tick will develop AGS, but those who are exposed to lots of tick bites over time may develop more severe symptoms.
Symptoms of alpha-gal syndrome include: hives or itchy rash, nausea, vomiting, heartburn, indigestion, diarrhea, stomach pain, dizziness, headaches, runny nose, sneezing, difficulty breathing, cough, drop in blood pressure, or swelling of the eyelids, lips, throat, and/or tongue, or even anaphylaxis. Like most other allergies, reactions can range from mild to severe.
Onset of symptoms most commonly appears within 2-6 hours of ingestion of alpha-gal-containing products. Not everyone that develops alpha-gal syndrome will have allergic reactions to all ingredients containing alpha-gal. Some people will be able to tolerate alpha-gal milk products with no problem at all, while others may be more sensitive to it.
The best way to decrease the risk of contracting alpha-gal syndrome is to avoid tick bites as much as possible. One way to avoid bodily contact with a tick is staying out of grassy and wooded areas where ticks are found in higher concentrations. Another preventative measure is wearing: long pants tucked into socks, long-sleeved tops, closed-toed shoes, hats, gloves, clothing treated with insecticide, and insect repellant.
After participating in outdoor activities, it is also helpful to check your clothes, shoes, and whole body for ticks. Take a shower with a washcloth, which can remove unattached ticks. Ticks can also latch onto pets, so it’s important to check them as well.
If you find a tick attached to your body, be sure to remove it with pointed-tip tweezers or a proper tick removal tool (not your fingernails), and be careful not to squeeze or crush it, because doing so may cause it to break into smaller pieces (possibly leaving the head embedded in the skin), release more saliva, or to empty its stomach contents into your bite wound. For these same reasons, it is advisable to avoid tricks such as applying different household chemicals to the site and setting the tick on fire. After removing the tick, apply an antiseptic and dispose of the tick.
Alpha-gal syndrome is an incurable allergy that can affect anyone. Those in the Southeast and Midwestern regions of the United States who spend a lot of time outdoors will be more susceptible. While the exact percentage of people with alpha-gal is unknown at this time, experts estimate it to be around 1-2% of the adult population. Thankfully, there are many preventive steps we can take to decrease the risk of contracting it.