‘More than just a tick bite’: Tick-borne allergy on the rise in Chatham

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Close-up image of the lone star tick from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

For decades, Sheila Beaudry suffered from a mysterious ailment with no real cure or remedy. It wasn’t until 2013 that she discovered she had a tick-borne illness.

Alpha-gal syndrome — known informally as the “red-meat allergy” — is triggered by mammalian meat and other mammal products. It is believed to be transmitted by the lone star tick, the most common tick to North Carolina.

Sheila Beaudry

Beaudry is hardly alone in suffering with this allergy; Chatham County is known as a hotspot for alpha-gal and other tick-borne illnesses. According to an assessment from the Chatham County Public Health Department, the county has one of the highest rates of tick-borne illness in North Carolina.

The Chatham County Community Survey, in fact, found that 8.3 percent of respondents had been diagnosed with a tick-borne illness while living in Chatham County. Of that group, just under 15 percent were diagnosed with alpha-gal syndrome.

According to nbcnews.com, tick-related meat allergies have been showing up recently across the southern and eastern U.S. – and exactly why remains a question mark.

Jennifer Platt, who earned her doctorate in public health, is CEO and founder of TickWarriors and considers herself somewhat of an expert when it comes to tick-borne illnesses.

Symptoms of alpha-gal syndrome can range from hives and mild nausea to throat swelling and anaphylaxis, Platt said. But the reaction isn’t always immediate.

“The problem is that it takes anywhere from zero to 10 hours to have the response,” Platt said. “A lot of times, there’s not an immediate cause and effect, and that’s why people have gone undiagnosed for a long time. They can’t exactly associate what happened to lead to that reaction.”

This disease isn’t just new to the public; it’s new to doctors, too. The alpha-gal allergy has puzzled doctors, Platt said, because most food allergies are triggered by proteins. Alpha-gal, in contrast, is a sugar.

“Alpha-gal breaks all the rules,” she said. “Everything that healthcare professionals have been taught doesn’t apply.”

Because it is a relatively new allergy, and the symptoms are so dynamic, alpha-gal syndrome often goes undetected for long periods of time. If they know what to look for, though, healthcare providers can diagnose alpha-gal syndrome with a simple blood test.

Jennifer Platt, DrPH, via the web

“I have probably had this for decades not knowing what it was,” Beaudry said. “I can remember swelling up all over with hives in high school, and I’m 71 now.”

Despite its common name, alpha-gal syndrome isn’t just a red-meat allergy. Many, including Beaudry, are allergic to all mammal products, including dairy, gelatin, personal care products and even certain medications.

“I hate it when people call it red-meat allergy, because it’s so much more than red meat,” Beaudry said. “You don’t really understand how much mammal is in everything until you get this allergy.”

There is no cure for alpha-gal syndrome. Like most allergies, the best strategy is avoidance. For Beaudry, life with alpha-gal syndrome has required a lot of changes. Finding substitutes for some products, Beaudry says, has been a headache.

Sometimes, that means thinking outside the box. 

“Emu is my new red meat,” Beaudry said. “It tastes like beef.”

These changes, though, have involved more than just dietary adjustments; it’s been a complete lifestyle overhaul.

Since her diagnosis, Beaudry and her husband have redone their backyard, cutting down trees and hardscaping to limit tick exposure. Subsequent tick bites can make her condition worse, so every couple months, Beaudry’s husband sprays the yard with tick repellent.

Her social life has suffered, too.

“What I really hate is the loss of the social function of just going to a potluck or to somebody’s house for dinner,” Beaudry said. “It’s such a production. It’s just so hard to cook for me that it is just easier if I just bring my own food.”

So, how do you prevent alpha-gal syndrome and other tick-borne illnesses? Platt recommends a holistic approach. Her company, TickWarriors, offers eco-friendly tick protection for people, pets and property.

“It can be as simple as throwing your clothes in the dryer for 15 minutes after being outside,” Platt said.

Platt added: “It’s counterintuitive. People are like, “Oh, I want to wash my clothes first.” But ticks can survive in water for up to 80 days. Heat, on the other hand, will kill them.”

Tick-borne illnesses are concerning, Platt said, but that shouldn’t mean people should be scared. They don’t need to completely avoid exposure, either. Using tick repellents and checking the body regularly for ticks are key preventative measures.

“What is life if you can’t go outside?” said Platt. “Don’t be scared. Just be smart.”

Alpha-gal syndrome is, in many ways, a new frontier. But as it becomes more and more common in Chatham County, Beaudry hopes people will become more conscious of the risks that tick bites pose to their health.

“It might be more than just a tick bite,” Beaudry said. “If people were warned that they might not ever be able to eat beef steak again, or a pork chop, they might take it a little more seriously.”

Platt is also co-founder of Tick-Borne Conditions United, a nonprofit organization which seeks to raise awareness about tick-borne conditions. Those interested in learning more about alpha-gal syndrome and other tick-borne illnesses can visit their website at tbcunited.org/resources.

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