Public radio from Western Michigan University 102.1 NPR News | 89.9 Classical WMUK
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The CDC says millions of Americans might be living with an allergy to meat


The CDC says close to half a million Americans might be living with an allergy to meat, and many haven't been diagnosed.

SCOTT COMMINS: Alpha-gal syndrome refers to the allergy that can develop following lone star tick bites.


Dr. Scott Commins is an allergy specialist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He's an expert in alpha-gal syndrome, sometimes referred to as the red meat allergy.

COMMINS: It's definitely more than just not eating steak, because anywhere between 30- to 50% of patients with AGS have to avoid dairy in all forms.

FADEL: And avoid products that contain gelatin and more.

COMMINS: Some of our medications are truly derived from animals, so it goes well beyond just avoiding red meat.

MARTÍNEZ: Symptoms of alpha-gal syndrome include itching and hives, but some people can have more serious reactions, such as Candice Matthis found out as she was bitten by a tick in 2009.

CANDICE MATTHIS: I woke up in the middle of the night several times after eating pork sausage, and my blood pressure tanked. I had horrible GI distress, almost passed out.

FADEL: And initially, she was told she had other allergies. Matthis was given supplements with meat-based ingredients.

MATTHIS: Five days into that regimen, I woke up to the room spinning, seeing double, my heart racing.

MARTÍNEZ: Matthis was having a severe allergic reaction. Her misdiagnosis may not be surprising given that a CDC survey of health care providers found 42% of them had not even heard of alpha-gal syndrome. But Dr. Scott Commins says it only takes a simple test to confirm that someone has the allergy.

COMMINS: The blood test itself basically detects the presence of the allergic response to the alpha-gal sugar.

FADEL: That's the sugar that gets transmitted to humans by the ticks, which are spreading.

COMMINS: The lone star ticks are really found throughout the Southeast, in the mid-Atlantic states and now extending up into the Great Lake areas.

FADEL: So if you're hiking in those regions, Commins recommends staying out of long grass, regularly checking for ticks and using repellents.

MARTÍNEZ: And after being diagnosed with alpha-gal syndrome in 2019, Matthis and a friend are now raising awareness about AGS.

MATTHIS: Debbie and I were actually diagnosed three months apart. So we began a blog called Two Alpha Gals, and we are now helping other people navigate this lifestyle and helping them find joy again.

FADEL: Making alpha-gal sound less like an allergy and more like a superpower. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.