How are some people allergic to meat

Meat allergy: the cause is a tick bite

Status: 02/11/2020 3:40 p.m.

Pork, beef and lamb are popular - and not just when grilling. But consumption can have dangerous consequences if a meat allergy occurs.

The first symptoms are usually hives and swelling of the lips and eyes, sometimes of the tongue. The skin begins to itch all over the body, is reddened and covered with wheals. In the further course it can lead to discomfort and even unconsciousness. A few of those affected only react with gastrointestinal complaints.

Meat allergy: symptoms after three to six hours

A meat allergy can develop suddenly, even if you have never had problems with meat in the past. In contrast to other allergies, the reactions do not occur within 20 to 30 minutes, but with a delay of three to six hours. It is not uncommon for the complaints to come in the middle of the night.

Allergic reaction to the alpha-gal sugar molecule

A special substance in the meat of mammals is responsible for the allergic reaction: galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose (alpha-gal). The body does not react to a protein molecule as it does in allergies to grass or nuts, but to sugar molecules on proteins.

Scientists have unmasked the bites of certain types of ticks as the cause of the meat allergy. According to a study, Alpha-Gal enters the human bloodstream with the tick's saliva. Upon first contact, the immune system becomes aware of the molecule and prepares itself for future confrontations. If alpha-gal gets into the body through the circulation of red meat, the immune system regards the substance as an enemy and produces antibodies that are supposed to switch off the sugar molecule. An allergic reaction occurs: the blood vessels dilate, fluid gets into the skin and forms the itchy wheals. The allergic reaction usually gets worse over time. The longer an affected person consumes meat, the smaller the amount of meat that triggers increasingly severe symptoms. At some point, sweets that contain gelatin made from beef bones will be enough to trigger a severe allergic reaction.

Offal are particularly rich in allergens

Alpha-Gal is not found in humans, but can be found in the flesh of other mammals. Some types of meat contain a particularly high amount of alpha-gal, for example offal such as pork kidneys, sweetbreads or liver. They are particularly dangerous for those who are allergic to meat.

Alpha-Gal Syndrome: Detection only with blood test

A meat allergy cannot be detected with the conventional skin prick test. A special blood test is required for this. Anyone who suffers from the allergy will have to refrain from consuming red meat in the future. Fish and poultry are also allowed because they do not contain alpha-gal - and of course vegetables. Those who already have an allergic reaction to gelatine can stick to foods labeled as vegan - they do not contain any substances of animal origin, including gelatine. Alpha-gal allergy sufferers who consistently avoid meat and offal from mammals have a relatively good chance that their body will at some point tolerate at least small amounts of alpha-gal again.

Experts on the subject

Prof. Dr. Uta Jappe, allergist
Senior Physician and Head of the Interdisciplinary Allergy Outpatient Clinic,
Medical Clinic III
University Medical Center Schleswig-Holstein, Lübeck Campus
Ratzeburger Allee 160, 23538 Lübeck

LGL Clinical and Molecular Allergology
Borstel Research Center
Leibniz Lung Center
Park avenue 35
23845 Borstel in Schleswig-Holstein

Dr. Andreas Kleinheinz, Chief Physician and Medical Director
Buxtehude Dermatological Center
Elbe Clinic Buxtehude
At the hospital 1
21614 Buxtehude

additional Information
German Allergy and Asthma Association
At the Eickesmühle 15-19
41238 Moenchengladbach
(02166) 647 88 20

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Visit | 03/11/2020 | 8:15 pm