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.


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