Jim Beck of Hilton Head was having a typical May weekday until he stopped to have a ham and cheese sandwich for lunch.
Then he had an unusual reaction.
“My lips started blowing up. Within two hours, my lips were huge. Then I started getting hives,” he said. “I had no clue what was wrong with me.”
Benadryl helped a bit, but at his doctor’s office the next day, his blood pressure dropped dangerously low, and he was admitted to the hospital overnight.
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“Nobody knew what was wrong with me,” he said.
An allergist in Charleston three weeks later was finally able to offer a diagnosis.
A blood test determined that Beck, 65, had developed an allergy to red meat, triggered after a bite from a lone star tick.
The alpha-gal allergy, as it’s known, is an allergy to a particular carbohydrate molecule found in meat, explained Medical News Today.
Dr. Thomas Beller of the Allergy and Asthma Center on Hilton Head Island said he sees three or four patients each year with this allergy.
He said the lone star tick has alpha-gal in its saliva, and a bite “starts to set off an alarm” in our immune system. When a person later eats meat that contains alpha-gal, that can cause a range of allergy symptoms.
“Most cases are relatively mild,” Beller said, explaining that sensitivities differ from person to person. Some people can tolerate certain types of meat and some people can tolerate dairy, he said.
Symptoms of the allergy can include hives or rashes, nausea, cramps, vomiting, diarrhea, sneezing, headaches, or anaphylaxis that can restrict breathing, reported the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.
Lone star ticks are found across the eastern United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The allergy can be diagnosed only with a blood test, not a skin test, Beller said.
“It’s becoming more common, and some of that is awareness,” he said. “Doctors now know what this is.”
In the 12 weeks since Beck’s first allergic reaction, he’s had to cut all meat, pork and dairy products from his diet.
“I still get rashes every day, and I can’t tell you why,” he said.
Beck said he reads food labels carefully and asks how food is prepared in restaurants.
“I’m fortunate we live here where there’s a lot of seafood,” said the Hilton Head Plantation resident.
Beck is semi-retired, but his work as a manufacturing consultant took him to Poland recently.
“I couldn’t read the labels there, but I managed,” he said. “I ate nothing but fish.”
Beck, who rides his bike almost every day and likes being active outdoors, believes he was bitten by a lone star tick on Hilton Head. He said he had a bite under his arm about two weeks before his first severe allergic reaction.
He now takes extra precautions to avoid tick bites and wants others to be aware of the risk.
“I’ve talked to a lot of people,” he said. “Nobody’s heard of this.”