Lone Star tick on a green leaf

Health & Wellbeing

James Gathanay

Could ticks turn people vegan? The alpha-gal allergy mystery

A tick which can cause an allergy to certain meats and potentially other animal products? On the face of it, it may sound like a dream for those who want meat consumption to fall globally. 

“‘Alpha-gal’ is short for galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose. It’s a type of carbohydrate found in the muscles of mammals. Alpha-gal allergy starts when you are bitten by a tick which carries the alpha-gal molecule in its saliva.”

As with all allergies, symptoms and reactions can vary, from some people not knowing they have the allergy, to extreme reactions, such as anaphylaxis; so, we wouldn’t want to wish this on anybody, even if it could curtail meat consumption.

There are a variety of products those with alpha-gal allergy need to avoid including all meat and offal from mammals. They may need to avoid certain other animal products such as gelatine and dairy products and perhaps certain medications. 

According to Anaphylaxis UK, the only known plant food that contains alpha-gal is carrageenan, so some people may need to avoid this.

So far, research suggests that this allergy is predominantly caused by the Lone Star tick. A recent BBC article reports that “US scientists have traced alpha-gal to saliva from the lone star tick… [which] is mostly found in southern and eastern parts of the US. But experts warn that their range is expanding due to climate change.”

A report by Anaphylaxis UK, highlights that there are other types of ticks that are causing this allergy in different places globally. However, not all species of ticks cause the allergy. 

Luckily, alpha-gal allergy isn’t affecting many people in the UK. However, for our friends across the pond (and other areas of the world, such as certain rural areas in South Africa), it’s a growing problem

The report also highlights that if you love spending lots of time outside in wooded areas, you may want to take some extra precautions such as wearing long-sleeved clothing and checking your skin for ticks when you get home. 

If you suspect an alpha-gal allergy, consult your GP. They can refer you to a specialised allergy clinic, if necessary, and you can find more information available through the British Society for Allergy and Clinical Immunology (BSACI).

For more allergy-related content check out our article which explores the ‘loophole’ around vegan labelling and what this means for those with allergies to animal products.

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