Alpha Gal is a sugar (galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose) found in most mammals with the exception of humans, apes, and monkeys. Alpha-gal can be found in many products made from mammals including some medications, cosmetics, vaccines, gelatin, and milk products.
Although it was initially presumed that the lone Star tick transmitted alpha-gal, it is now evident that other ticks can also transmit it. This is in consideration of the fact that alpha-gal exists in Australia and Europe where the lone star tick has not been found. Alpha gal is transmitted to star ticks after biting animals including cows and sheep. Ticks will then carry the alpha gal and inject the molecules into the human body. This may trigger the appearance of a condition known as the alpha-gal syndrome. This results from an unusual immune response to the alpha gal sugar. Affected people would have mild to severe allergic reactions upon eating red meat (beef, lamb, pork, venison, and rabbits). Allergic reactions also occur upon exposure to products from mammals such as cosmetics, medications, vaccines, gelatin, and milk products. Cetuximab, a cancer drug, contains alpha-gal. More serious reactions can develop in people suffering from repeated tick bites. Symptoms do not necessarily develop after each exposure and naturally symptoms vary from one individual to another. Alpha gal allergies appear to affect individuals of all ages. It is mostly common in south eastern and mid-western United States, though many cases have been identified in other parts of the country where the lone star tick is not typically seen.
Symptoms include hives, itching, eczema, dizziness, fainting, breathing difficulties, and drop in blood pressure. Other symptoms include; swelling of the lips, face, tongue and throat, or other body parts. A runny nose, sneezing, and headaches are also common. Gastro-intestinal symptoms such as abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea or vomiting are not uncommon. While reactions to the majority food allergies are seen almost immediately following food ingestion, alpha-gal allergy can be delayed up to eight hours following the consumption of red meat. This is due to the fact that alpha-gal molecules take a longer time to be digested and absorbed compared to other allergens.
In the extreme cases, patients may develop alpha-gal anaphylactic shock. This is a serious medical emergency that require immediate medical attention and treatment with epinephrine (adrenaline) injector such as EpiPen. Signs of anaphylaxis concludes; drop in blood pressure, swelling of the mouth and the throat, airway constriction, dizziness, and loss of consciousness.
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