Red meat isn’t one of the top eight major food allergens, and an allergy to this food is a rather new discovery. But it’s on the rise.

In the United States, red meat allergies were first reported in 2009 with 24 cases. As of 2021, the number increased to 34,000 confirmed cases.

Specifically, there was a 32% increase in cases of this allergy in the southeastern United States, where Lone Star ticks are common. These insects’ bites may trigger red meat allergies.

Currently, it’s estimated that up to 3% of people in the United States are allergic to red meat.

This article will tell you everything you need to know about red meat allergies.

Some evidence suggests that red meat allergy in the United States may be triggered by tick bites, specifically from Lone Star ticks. Other tick species have been linked to this allergy in other countries.

Although people of all ages can develop this allergy, most cases have been reported in adults who have been bitten by ticks.

A tick bite may trigger an immune response to galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose (also known as alpha-gal), a sugar that’s found in mammalian red meat, which humans tend to eat.

Alpha-gal reactions are recognized as a common cause of allergic reactions to red meat. It’s also possible, though rare, to have a red meat allergy unrelated to alpha-gal syndrome.

Not everyone who gets bitten by a Lone Star tick will develop an allergy. More research is needed to understand how ticks may trigger this reaction and what the risk factors are for its development.

(In case you’re wondering whether Lyme disease — another well-known tick-borne disease — causes red meat allergies, no evidence suggests that the two conditions are related.)

Red meat allergy and COVID vaccines

You may be concerned about red meat allergies and the COVID-19 vaccine. The mRNA vaccines do not contain animal materials, which means their ingredients do not contain alpha-gal.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people who have had allergic reactions unrelated to the ingredients in the COVID-19 vaccine receive the vaccination.

If you have concerns about your allergies and the COVID-19 vaccine, consult a healthcare professional.

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Symptoms of a red meat allergy can include:

Alpha-gal syndrome is unique in that symptoms do not begin until 3 to 6 hours after eating red meat or dairy byproducts or after exposure to products that contain alpha-gal. Often, it can take longer.

In contrast, symptoms of other food allergies, such as hives, vomiting, and difficulty breathing, typically start within 2 hours of eating the food.

Symptoms and severity vary from person to person, and you may not have the same reaction with each exposure.

If you experience difficulty breathing at any time, go to the nearest emergency room.

An allergist can diagnose red meat allergy through a detailed history consistent with alpha-gal type allergy.

Healthcare professionals can confirm suspected alpha-gal syndrome with a blood test showing sensitization to alpha-gal. They may also use a blood test showing sensitization to mammalian meats.

Additionally, an allergy skin test documenting reactions to red meat may be useful.

If you have a red meat allergy, the only treatment is to limit or avoid red meat. If alpha-gal syndrome is the cause of your allergy, you may also need to limit or avoid foods that contain alpha-gal.

Alpha-gal can be found in:

Alpha-gal is not found in poultry — such as chicken, turkey, duck, and quail — or other birds. There is also no alpha-gal in eggs, fish and seafood, or reptiles.

Keep in mind that red meat allergy differs for everyone. Some people may be able to eat small portions of foods containing allergens without experiencing symptoms, while others cannot. For example, most people with red meat allergies can tolerate cow’s milk.

Remember to read the ingredient lists of products and medications. Ingredients that contain alpha-gal include gelatin, glycerin, magnesium stearate, and bovine extract.

If you’re limiting or avoiding red meat, be sure to replace it with poultry, eggs, seafood, or plant proteins to ensure that you’re still following a balanced diet. Your diet can also include soy, pulses, nuts, seeds, and whole grains, none of which contain alpha-gal.

A registered dietitian can help

If you need to adjust your eating habits to accommodate a new allergy, consider working with a weight-neutral registered dietitian (RD) to make sure you’re still enjoying varied, balanced, and nourishing foods.

Concerned about costs? Many health professionals, including some RDs, accept health insurance and Medicare or can adjust fees based on a sliding scale to help make their services more affordable.

You can learn more about finding affordable medical care in your community here or explore telemedicine options here.

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You can reduce your risk of developing red meat allergy caused by alpha-gal syndrome by preventing tick bites.

Before you go outdoors, consider the following tips:

  • Know where to expect ticks. They usually reside in wooded, grassy, or brushy areas.
  • Treat clothing and gear with products containing 0.5% permethrin. You can also buy products that are pretreated.
  • Use Environmental Protection Agency-registered insect repellents.

You can minimize contact with ticks when you’re outdoors by avoiding wooded and brushy areas and wearing long pants and closed-toed shoes with socks. Walk in the center of the trails, if possible.

When you return from the outdoors:

  • Check your whole body for ticks. Pay special attention to your underarms, in and around your ears, inside your belly button, the backs of your knees, around your waist, your pubic area, and your hair. Here’s how to remove a tick from your body if you find one.
  • Inspect your clothing. Remove any ticks you find on clothes, wash the clothes, and dry them on high heat for at least 10 minutes.
  • Examine your pets and gear for ticks.
  • Shower within 2 hours of coming indoors.

Does red meat allergy go away?

To date, there are no reports of a red meat allergy going away. However, there’s emerging evidence that alpha-gal syndrome may subside over 1 to 5 years in most people.

Can you develop a red meat intolerance later in life?

Yes. In fact, most cases of red meat allergy develop in adulthood.

How do you test for red meat intolerance?

Remember: An intolerance is different from an allergy.

Allergies can affect your digestive system. However, an allergy is due to your immune system’s hypersensitivity to an allergen. This reaction produces hives, vomiting, and other symptoms. Diarrhea and bloating are less common symptoms.

Intolerance is not specifically due to your immune system, and digestive symptoms are its most common manifestations.

An allergist will likely take a thorough medical history, perform a physical examination, and order a blood test to rule out an allergy. An allergy skin test may also be necessary.

If you don’t have an allergy, you may have an intolerance. There is no way to test for an intolerance besides monitoring your food intake and symptoms.

Red meat allergies are on the rise. Based on current evidence, alpha-gal syndrome, which is triggered by Lone Star tick bites in the United States, is a common cause.

You can’t treat or reverse a red meat allergy, but you can limit or stop red meat consumption to prevent symptoms. If you have alpha-gal syndrome, you may also need to avoid byproducts of red meat, although dairy is typically well tolerated.

There’s still a lot we don’t know about the causes, treatment, and duration of red meat allergies. Consult a healthcare professional if you think you’ve been bitten by a Lone Star tick, especially if you develop any symptoms after a bite.