Erin Schultz is a student in Des Moines University's Master of Physician Assistant Studies program

WEST DES MOINES, IOWA (March 11, 2024) — The past decade has seen an uptick, so to speak, in the number of cases of Alpha-gal syndrome, also known as the "red meat allergy." It's caused by the Lone Star tick (below), typically seen in the south-central and southeastern states, that recently has become more established in central states such as Iowa and Missouri and is currently working its way North, with cases even being reported in Minnesota.

With more than 90,000 suspected cases of AGS identified during a study from 2017 to 2022 by the Centers for Disease Control, speculation exists that a continued increase in cases of the syndrome will occur in coming years.

What is Alpha-gal syndrome?

Alpha-gal syndrome is a type of food allergy caused by the bite of a Lone Star tick that can result in a potentially life-threatening allergy to red meat including beef, lamb, pork and venison. Some individuals who develop AGS may have no symptoms, but others may develop an itchy rash, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or swelling of the eyes, tongue, and throat that could lead to difficulty breathing or, worse, anaphylactic shock. Symptoms typically do not occur until two to six hours after the consumption of red meat. These symptoms may also be random, meaning that they may not occur each time someone eats red meat.

It is recommended to consult a health care professional if you experience any type of allergic reaction after consuming red meat. Currently, the only treatment for AGS is to avoid ingesting any form of red meat. Due to the increasing number of AGS cases, it is important to recognize the risk factors for tick bites and take measures to protect yourself from tick exposure.

What increases the likelihood of a tick bite?

Tick bites are more common than one may think. The more tick exposures someone has, the more likely they are to obtain a tickborne illness. Ticks are active any time that the temperature is above freezing and can be present year-round. The CDC reports that the activity of ticks is highest during the warmer months of April-September. The environments that ticks are drawn to are highly grassy, brushy or wooded areas. Individuals who spend more time outdoors such as farmers, hunters or campers are also at an increased risk of exposure.

How can I protect myself from getting a tick bite?

The most important method of preventing tickborne illnesses is reducing your chance of obtaining a tick bite. It is also important to check for ticks and promptly remove any attached ticks after spending time outdoors. The longer ticks are attached to the body, the more likely they are to transmit an infection. Listed below are a few of the more common ways to protect yourself from getting a tick bite:

  • Topically applied insect repellents can play a key role in deterring ticks from the body. Repellents containing DEET 10-30%, permethrin, IR3535 or Picardin are a few examples that can be applied to the outer layers of clothing.
  • Clothing choices can have a big impact as well. Wearing longer pants, shirts and socks with closed-toed shoes outdoors reduces the surface area for ticks to attach to. A helpful tip is to tuck the bottoms of your pants into longer socks or even loosely duct tape the outside of pants to your socks.
  • Another thing that we may not think about is our furry friends. Pets can spend a lot of time outside and could potentially bring a not-so-friendly tick into the house with them. Talking to your local veterinarian about safe tick repellents for pets is a way to reduce their risk in addition to your family's chance of a tick bite.
  • A few extra tips for preventing tick bites in the summer include yard care. Since ticks like to reside in grassy, bushy or wooded areas, it can be helpful to keep the grass in your yard shorter and remove sticks or leaves that may be visible.

For additional tips on preventing tick bites, visit the Centers for Disease Control, United States Environmental Protection Agency, or the National Pesticide Information Center website databases.

Erin Schultz is a student in Des Moines University's Master of Physician Assistant Studies program. DMU offers ten graduate-level professional degree programs in medicine and the health sciences. Founded in 1898, the institution offers superior academics in a collaborative environment. DMU students' scores on national examinations, pass rates on board certifications and match rates for medical residency programs are consistently higher than national averages and rates at peer institutions.

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