A bite from this tick can make you allergic to red meat — and cases are up in MO and KS

A bite from one type of tick can give you a serious allergy to red meat and other animal products — and Missouri has some of the highest case rates in the U.S., according to a report released last week by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

Cases of this unusual condition have been increasing over the past five years, especially in the Midwest, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Lone Star tick, which is one of the most common ticks in the Kansas City area, can carry a condition called Alpha-gal Syndrome: an extreme sensitivity to the sugar molecule nicknamed “alpha-gal.” This molecule is found in mammal products like beef, pork, dairy products and gelatin.

Along with creating an allergy to summer staples like burgers and ice cream, this condition can be life-threatening.

Symptoms include a rash, vomiting, severe stomach pain and even difficulty breathing.

The Star asked local experts how widespread this condition is in the Kansas City area, and how to avoid contracting it.

What is Alpha-gal Syndrome?

This unusual condition is most like a severe allergy — but it differs from more common allergies in a few key ways.

Firstly, Alpha-gal Syndrome isn’t limited to only one type of food. Instead, it’s an allergy to a carbohydrate found in mammals and mammal-derived products.

Those who catch the disease are no longer able to consume medications like pills in gelatin capsules, some monoclonal antibodies, prosthetic heart valves from pigs or cows and some other medications.

They also have to give up meats like beef, lamb, pork, venison and dairy products like milk, cheese and yogurt.

Since fish and chickens are not mammals, this disease does not cause an allergy to their meat or eggs.

The other characteristic that sets Alpha-gal Syndrome apart from other allergies is the onset of its symptoms. Many allergic reactions happen near-instantly — but symptoms of Alpha-gal Syndrome can take two to six hours to appear after a mammal product is consumed.

This can make the disease more difficult to diagnose.

Where is Alpha-gal Syndrome most prevalent?

Experts from the KDHE and the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services told The Star that the disease is not required to be reported in either state, meaning exact case numbers are not available.

But according to the CDC, the presence of Alpha-gal Syndrome in the U.S. has been increasing over the past five years. Check out the map below to see where the disease is most prevalent.

This map shows the geographic distribution of suspected Alpha-gal Syndrome cases per 1 million people per year from 2017–2022.
This map shows the geographic distribution of suspected Alpha-gal Syndrome cases per 1 million people per year from 2017–2022.

CDC data shows that all of the counties in the five-county Kansas City area saw between 11 and 87 cases per million residents each year between 2017 and 2022. That’s still pretty few cases — but many counties across Missouri and eastern Kansas saw more than that.

“Missouri is one of the states with the highest number of people testing positive for Alpha-gal (Syndrome),” the KDHE wrote in an Aug. 3 presentation.

How can I stay safe from Alpha-gal Syndrome?

Alpha-gal Syndrome is thought to be primarily spread through the Lone Star tick, one of the most common ticks in Kansas and Missouri. Preventative measures can help keep ticks away and protect you from this disease.

Kansas health officials recommend that residents “avoid grassy, brushy areas (and) use insect repellents” on yourself and your pets.

“Light colored clothing makes it a bit easier to spot ticks,” added Missouri Department of Conservation spokesperson Bill Graham. “Once home, promptly check the body thoroughly for ticks, (and) use mirrors if necessary to check everywhere.”

The department adds that tweezers can be used to detach ticks from the body if one has already bitten you.

“Lightly pinch the tick as close to your skin as possible,” the department writes. “Pull the tick straight out. Wash and disinfect the area (and) apply antibiotics.”

Do you have more questions about staying healthy in the Kansas City area? Ask the Service Journalism team at kcq@kcstar.com.