The Meat Allergy: What’s It Like?

March 29, 2018

One day you enjoy a hamburger with no problem and the next time you eat one you have a severe, potentially life-threatening allergic reaction. Scary stuff, huh?

This is the meat allergy, one of our discoveries that attracts perpetual interest. Dr. Thomas Platts-Mills, the chief of our Division of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, and his colleagues determined that bites from Lone Star ticks can cause people to suddenly become allergic to meat from mammals.

UVA Today recently interviewed Dr. Platts-Mills about the work, and you can read that here. But I thought you might enjoy hearing from someone who has the allergy. What’s it like? Let’s find out.

(I’ve omitted the person’s name and other personal details to protect their privacy. The answers have been edited for length and clarity.)

How did you first discover you had the meat allergy?

I think it was 2010. I started to break out in hives every day for two weeks straight, and I didn’t know what was causing it. I finally went to the allergy clinic [at UVA]. … Three days later, I got the phone call from the doctor, and she said, “You need to stop eating beef, dairy, pork, venison and lamb.”

They had me come back in and put me on a cocktail of medications for two months and put me on a restrictive diet for two months, to watch what I was eating.

The funny thing, for me, is that every time I tested for [the meat allergy], I tested negative. They had me come back in at some point in those two months to do skin testing and they put those [allergen] patches on my back. Cats and dogs showed up, which I’ve never been allergic to.

Then they gave me a milk test. After the first tablespoon, within 30 minutes my leg broke out into hives, so they had to stop the test.

I ended up going to see Dr. Platts-Mills. I think they may have reached out to me, because they were doing a study. They discovered I have what is called “pork-cat syndrome,” which is really weird. What they told me was I’m allergic to cat saliva, and they told me if a cat licks me, my body thinks I have consumed pork, because of something in the cat saliva. … They told me that I was in a very small group of people who have this condition. Dr. Platts-Mills told me, “You will never eat pork again, or at least you shouldn’t, because it can cause anaphylactic shock.”

I still have my cat.

So did they determine you got the meat allergy from a tick bite?

They tested for alpha-gal [the cause, or a cause, of the allergy] at least three times. Every time it comes back negative. Dr. Platts-Mills told me I most likely have the [meat allergy], because there are false negatives. So I don’t know for sure, but it would make sense, because all of a sudden I’m allergic to meat, stuff I used to eat all my life.

What can’t you eat now?

I do not eat beef and pork, no hamburger, bacon, ham, pepperoni. Any of that stuff, I can’t eat. I never eat venison or lamb, so I don’t have to worry about those two. The dairy allergy is a little bit tricky. I’m drinking coffee right now with half-and-half. But if you were to put a glass of milk in front of me and I were to take a drink, it would make my whole mouth and throat itch. Certain types of ice cream I can’t eat. Turkey Hill doesn’t bother me. I’ve switched to almond milk for cereal. I don’t do milk at all. Cheeses are OK. I can eat yogurt.

The last time I saw Dr. Platts-Mills, he said, “You would probably be OK eating a hamburger, if you want to test it out.” … But I don’t want to take the chance.

What are your symptoms if you eat meat?

For me, it was hives, most of the time. [My throat] has never completely closed, but it just starts to feel like there’s something in there. I keep liquid Benadryl, because they say it gets in your system faster. I’ve never had to resort to the EpiPen, which is a good thing.

How has the meat allergy affected your diet?

Now I eat a lot of chicken and fish and turkey, and I have to say I’m glad it’s the other meats I’m allergic to and not these, because I’d rather eat the chicken and turkey anyway. But now and then I do crave a juicy cheeseburger.

I used to eat hot dogs and now I have to be really careful. I was eating turkey and chicken hot dogs [for a while] when I noticed one tasted off. As soon as I bit into it, I knew the taste was different. And I didn’t like it. I turned the package over and they had encased my chicken hot dog in a beef casing.

I can’t eat marshmallows. I think we were doing s’mores one night over the firepit. I noticed after eating them that my throat felt really odd. I did some research and it had to do with the gelatin in them.

Jell-O is OK. But I can’t do Rice Krispy treats.

Do you have to take medicine regularly?

Mostly it’s avoiding food. They told me to take like a Claritin every day, but the problem with that is that my eyes became chronically dry, so I don’t take the allergy medicine every day. I just avoid the food, and I’m constantly using eye drops.

Any other unusual experiences?

We had like a Thanksgiving potluck [at my office]. I knew I was allergic to pork, but it was before I knew I had the pork-cat thing. … I was trying to eat the food and take the medicine to see if I could eat the food. I remember eating a piece of ham and then I went to the gym. On the way back, I started to itch from head to toe.

When I mentioned it to Dr. Platts-Mills, he said, “If you’re going to eat pork, you have to wait at least four hours to exercise, because you’re pushing the allergen through your system faster.” But he said don’t eat it again, so I don’t.

Thank you for sharing your story!

 

Image by  Katja Schulz, published under creative commons. It has been cropped and recolored.

Comments (2)

  1. Tim Opiela says:

    It may be possible to keep a pet such as a dog or a cat in your home with alpha gal, despite them being a mammal. Note all mammals contain Alpha gal, it is present in their dander, salvia, and both forms waste.

    Pet owners have experienced a reduction in alpha gal related reactivity by switching their pets to an “alpha gal friendly diet” of chicken, turkey, duck, and seafood. Note this effort will only reduce the amount of alpha gal, for it is contained within your pet’s DNA.

    Continued pet ownership is an individual decision and should be based upon individual reactivity.

    If tested for a dog or cat allergy, please be aware you are being tested for the protein NOT alpha gal 1,3 which is a carbohydrate. This should be interrupted as you potentially experiencing allergic reactivity to dogs and cats.

  2. Amanda says:

    I have had alpha gal for 4 years now and within the first two years I couldn’t figure out why my stomach still felt icky and a lot of discomfort in my belly. I was going through newsletter about other peoples experiences with alpha gal and this lady was talking about how she couldn’t take over the counter or prescription medication because it contained animal by products like beef and pork. She was having the same symptoms I was having. I called the manufacturer on my meds and come to find out it contained animal by product in it. All that time I couldn’t figure out why I didnt feel good and lead to intestinal infection twice. It was causing allergic reaction in my belly, but not enough to show hives or anaphylaxis. Now not everyone with alpha gal is allergic to medications like I am. I have a pharmacy that makes my medication, takes the binders and fillers out and puts in a vegan capsule. I carry a medical card with me in case I have to go to the er. They would have to call the manufacturer before they give me any kind of medicine and find out if it contains beef or pork before they administer it to me because I will go into anaphylaxis. Have to look closely at ingredient labels. You will have to look up ingredients to know what is made from beef and pork. Like if the label says 100% Turkey, but you look at the ingredients and it is put into a beef or pork casing. Watch out for gelatin, magnesium stearate (some are made from palm oil from a palm fruit), anything beef flavoring, whey, glycerin (some is made from plant base or animal), just to name of a few, but there are several more ingredients to watch out for. I could go on and on and have been educating some doctors about the alpha gal and getting to set up an appt to speak to the hospital administrator on how to handle a person who has this type of allergy and medication.

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