How a walk in the woods could end with a forced change to your diet

Play time in the outdoors ended with one local boy having to swear off hamburgers for good.

Lauren Katz’s 10-year-old son, Abram, developed an allergy to burgers and other red meats after getting bit by a tick.

“I had heard what I thought were urban legends about getting a tick bite and then having an allergy to red meat, and I never gave it another thought,” said Lauren Katz, of Ashburn, Virginia. “I just thought ‘Oh, that’s very freakish. It probably won’t ever happen to us.’ Lo and behold, it has happened.”

Abram didn’t even notice the tick on his skin for a few days because these aren’t the usual bigger ticks you’ve heard about that carry Lyme disease.

“They’re tiny,” Lauren Katz said. “They’re tiny, tiny, little poppy seed-size ticks, so my son had it on him for several days because he thought it was a mole.”

But it was a Lone Star tick — an aggressive breed whose bite can cause Galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose, or alpha-gal, allergy. This is essentially an allergy to mammal meat, such as beef, pork and lamb. But it’s not a usual immediate allergy — it’s a delayed allergy, meaning symptoms can take two to 10 hours to show up.

That can make diagnosis difficult.

‘What’s he reacting to?’

When Abram first broke out with hives all over his body, Lauren thought of the tick, and took him to the doctor, thinking he had Lyme disease. But the doctors said it did not look like Lyme disease, and sent them home.

“I kept bringing him back; he kept breaking out in hives. They would kind of go away but then they would come back, and it was on and off for a few days.”

Then she was able to put two and two together.

“I had given him a ham sandwich at school, and two hours later he had a really bad breakout and they sent him to the nurse. By the time we got there, he was swelling up.”

At the emergency room, the doctors saw it was an allergic reaction, but the cause was still eluding all of them: “I was like ‘OK, what’s he reacting to?’ He’s had ham sandwiches a million times!”

It was finally a search on the internet that helped her hone in on alpha-gal allergies.

“I said, ‘This sounds like what he has.’ So we got him with EpiPens and steroids in the emergency room, and the hives went away.”

But the doctors still hadn’t nailed down the diagnosis. The next day, when Abram accidentally ate something with beef in it and had another reaction, they got more information to support her suspicion.

“I noticed when they gave him Benadryl, they gave him a gelatin capsule of Benadryl. His hives doubled.”

That’s when a blood test confirmed that he had an alpha-gal allergy. And with that, the diet he enjoyed went out the window.

“It is hard because he loved hamburgers, and he loved bacon. Those are his two favorite foods,” Katz said. “You can eat poultry, so we’ve been trying to do a lot of turkey and chicken substitutions. But you do get kind of sick of it.”

More severe cases

While the allergy has changed Abram’s diet, she said it could be worse. Some people are even more sensitive than he is, and have reactions to dairy, cheese or even sugar, as it is processed through bone char.

“A lot of people with alpha-gal literally can’t eat anything unless it’s certified vegan, and even in those things are certain ingredients that mimic alpha-gal. so it’s a very complicated allergy,” Katz said.

The delayed reaction is one of the scarier parts of alpha-gal. Abram could consume something he’s allergic to during the day, and not have an outbreak — or even anaphylaxis — until the middle of the night.

And sufferers can have spotty reactions.

“One day you might react and another day you might not react,” said Katz. “And one day you might have a low reaction, another day you might have anaphylaxis. So it’s a very unpredictable allergy, which is what makes it really scary.”

If that’s not enough to worry about, if you already have it, another bite could cause a worse case, with more allergic reactions.

And there’s no known cure. So Katz’s most important piece of advice: “Tell your children to check themselves for ticks, and even if they think something is a mole or a scab, that they should just double-check that it’s not a tick.”

Michelle Murillo

Michelle Murillo has been a part of the WTOP family since 2014. She started her career in Central Florida before working in radio in New York City and Philadelphia.

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