For many, summer is filled with vacations, fun in the sun, barbecues and enjoying the outdoors, but for some, there’s a parasite lurking beneath warm-weather fun — one that could change a person’s life forever.
Many have heard of the most common tick-borne diseases, such as Lyme Disease and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, but one disease known as alpha-gal is becoming more common. According to the Centers for Disease Control, “Alpha-gal (galactose-α-1,3-galactose) is a sugar molecule found in most mammals (except in people, apes, and monkeys).”
The sugar molecule is not usually found in fish, reptiles or birds, although it can be found in products made from mammals. It is also found in some types of ticks.
“An alpha-gal allergy is an allergy to the alpha-gal sugar molecule,” the CDC stated. “Allergic reactions typically occur after people eat meat from mammals that have alpha-gal or are exposed to products made from mammals.”
Alpha-gal is sometimes associated with a tick bite which then can cause an allergic reaction to red meat when eaten. The CDC stated data from the U.S and other countries suggest alpha-gal is associated with tick bites. Research is continuing but the CDC does suggest “taking steps to prevent tick bites.”
For one area woman, a deer tick bite was the harbinger of alpha-gal. Carrie Rieman, of Warsaw, talked with the Democrat last week and said she developed the disease after being bitten in 2017.
“I probably had symptoms prior to my first anaphylactic reaction, but I just didn’t realize what it was,” she said. “I started having a series of anaphylactic reactions in the winter of 2018, which culminated in one major one that shut down my airway and got me my first trip in an ambulance.”
Eating red meat or being exposed to it causes nausea and digestive disturbances in Rieman, a business development specialist at the Center for Human Services. Her hands begin to turn red and itchy, then she breaks out in hives and her lips and throat begin to swell.
After the ambulance trip to Bothwell Regional Health Center, Rieman went through a series of standard allergy tests. Nothing was found.
“It was actually detected through a blood test,” she noted.
An allergist in Warrensburg eventually diagnosed Rieman with alpha-gal due to the bite of a Lone Star Deer Tick.
“I found out that with Alpha galactose, because it’s a blood-borne allergy, you don’t get an immediate reaction to it,” Rieman said. “With this particular allergy, it could be many hours …”
The allergy keeps Rieman from eating any type of mammalian meat, although she can eat seafood and poultry. Due to the extreme allergic reaction, Rieman carries an EpiPen with her at all times especially when she eats out.
Rieman said although the disease has totally changed her life there is a bright side — it has helped her to eat healthier.
“If you look at the more positive respect of it, which I try to do, it’s really encouraged me to eat leaner meats, which is better for you anyway,” she said. “So, my cholesterol has gone down, which is a plus.
“I wouldn’t say hunt out a deer tick to lose weight,” she added laughing. “It hasn’t been all bad.”
On the downside attending social events can be daunting.
“Attending barbecues and social events, sometimes I have to bring my own (food),” she said. “You just walk in with your own stuff, just so you have a protein you can eat.”
She said it’s also important to make people aware she has a severe allergy.
“So, far I’ve not had to have anybody else inject me with the EpiPen, which I’m grateful for,” Rieman said. “Some of the reactions are pretty quick so, I make sure to let people know if I’m eating out.”
Rieman offered advice for those who enjoy the outdoors.
“I encourage everybody I know to spray down with repellant whenever they are going to be outside,” she said. “Because there are so many tick-borne illnesses, mosquitoes and insects that are transferring really critical diseases. We just don’t think about it and it can be life-changing. So, I would encourage protection.”
Rieman said although living in the shadow of alpha-gal keeps her on her toes, she isn’t anxious or fearful of the disease.
“Now that I’m aware of it and I know what to avoid, and I know I can control it with the EpiPen, then I’m better,” she noted. “If I didn’t have an EpiPen available … there’s a huge difference in an allergic reaction that you can deal with … and one without it. And, I’ve experienced both, and the one without it was terrifying. Absolutely terrifying.”