Red meat used to be one of Barbara Newman's favorite foods to cook with, until she was bit by a lone star tick and could no longer eat it.
On a sunny afternoon in September of 2012, Barbara Newman, 59, was hiking just outside of Birmingham, Alabama, where she works as a environmental health program supervisor within the Jefferson County Department of Health. If anyone would know about best practices for safely enjoying the outdoors, Newman says it should be her. But it was that particular hike that was the catalyst for one of the most serious health scares she's ever experienced. It all started with a tick, something that Newman says she’d dealt with several times before.
"Sunday night, I noticed tiny nymphs burrowed in my hair, and found a rather large one on my head," says Newman, who began feeling particularly itchy and removed the tick as best as she could. "That day, we had eaten roast beef for lunch, and the next evening, my husband made a plate of stuffed peppers with ground beef."
But when the itching became so intense that it woke Newman up in the middle of the night on Tuesday, she said what happened next felt like a true nightmare.
"I was itching, clawing, at my scalp and head. And finally I got out of bed to go to the bathroom and take a look at what could possibly be so bad," Newman says. "There I was, looking in the mirror, and I couldn't believe my eyes. My lips looked like Daffy Duck, and I couldn't recognize myself...I hopped in my car and drove myself to the [emergency room]. And next thing you knew, there I was on a gurney being wheeled into a room where an Epipen was waiting for me.”
How Exactly Does the Lone Star Tick Cause Meat Allergies?
She didn't know it at the time, but the tick that had bit her was the "lone star" tick—a special breed of tick with saliva capable of reprogramming your body's immune system. A lone star tick bite inevitably causes victims to develop severe allergies to red meat (or "mammalian" meat, as Newman describes it), and the prevalence of this scientific phenomena has become increasingly common and widespread over the last year.
This year alone, more than 5,000 new cases of people developing severe aversions to red meat due to the tick have popped up in the United States—and the lone star tick has traveled far and wide, reaching as far as Northern Maine from its native Texan breeding ground.
Red meat contains simple sugar molecules, which are protein-linked saccharides (a combination of galactose-alpha-1 and 3-galactose) that are commonly referred to as the "alpha-gal" by medical professionals. The lone star tick causes your body to swell, break out in hives, and can even cause life-threatening anaphylaxis if alpha-gals enter your bloodstream after eating red meat.
Newman had never suffered a food allergy before, so her primary care doctor referred her to Dr. William Massey of the Alabama Allergy and Asthma Center, where an allergy test showed high levels of resistance to red meats, including beef and pork—two foods Newman had eaten her entire life. Dr. Massey knew of research being done by Thomas Platts-Mills, an immunologist from the University of Virginia, who had been studying this phenomena since 2004. Platts-Mills would later be credited as the first in his field to discover the effect of the lone star tick's saliva on humans.
Does this condition last forever?
"After I was tested, I was told I couldn't eat any mammalian meat—things like goat, lamb, pork, or beef," Newman said. "Since then, I've stayed far away from any red meat and things like ham, which, don't get me wrong, I used to love."
Newman has had to keep a close eye on her bloodwork and her immune system's intolerance towards the alpha-gal found in red meat over the years. She says her doctor has encouraged her to slowly reintroduce red meat into her diet, given that her allergy isn't as dire as it initially was in 2012. It’s her understanding that she may be able to eat small amounts of red meat without risking dire consequences, but Newman says she's perfectly fine with giving it up for the rest of her life.
"To be honest, it wasn't much of a hard choice for me, after having to experience that trip to the hospital and not knowing why I was feeling so irritated and sick. After that night, it was like 'Nah, I really don't miss it.' Between going into anaphylactic shock and eating hamburgers, I'd rather avoid the shock."
Newman says that there's no easy "cure" for her condition, and it's something she'll have to deal with for the rest of her life.
How has her diet changed?
Newman says giving up red meat has been extremely easy—especially since she can still enjoy poultry, fish, and shellfish.
"Sometimes it's a problem—and this would be the same for anyone with food allergies or diet restrictions—when you head into an event or a business meeting and there are no options for you," she says. "And I've read online, in alpha-gal support groups, that sometimes adding seasonings or other sauces to meals can be tricky, given what ingredients are being used to make it."
Newman still enjoys many of her favorite meals by swapping ground beef for turkey or chicken; making dishes like spaghetti or lasagna; and even subbing red meat-heavy breakfast spreads for vegetarian sausage or turkey bacon. Thankfully, Newman’s family has been supportive and has adopted this new way of eating, which is a "blessing on its own," she says.
You might ask: Has she lost any weight?
"Well, I've definitely maintained a healthy figure for my age, and have not put on any pounds since the incident. In some ways, it has been healthier for me. And it's also been noticeably cheaper to cook at home, too, which is something I didn't realize until later," she says. "I've been eating more vegetables than before, sure, but it's a little bit of an adjustment that you always are getting used to in some way."
Still working within the Jefferson County Department of Health, Newman says that it's important to read up on best practices for heading outside during summer months to avoid any chance of contracting an illness like hers—or other serious tick-related diseases, such as Lyme disease.
"Reach out to your local health department, learn about the best ways to protect yourself, use repellants if you can, check your animals, and wear light-colored clothing" Newman says. "And most importantly, go to an allergist if you think you have a problem, which can save you from having the same experience I did. Be diligent."