This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Contact a qualified medical professional before engaging in any physical activity, or making any changes to your diet, medication or lifestyle.
Tick-borne illnesses are on the rise in Canada due to climate and environmental changes. While many people may be aware of tick-related illnesses such as Lyme disease, a bite from one particular species of tick can cause a life-threatening allergy to red meat.
In an interview with The Toronto Star, Doris Fox said she by 2018 she experiencing up to 10 anaphylactic episodes a week due to a red meat allergy likely caused by a bite from a lone star tick.
“I said to my husband, you know what, let's just plan my funeral because one of these days we're not gonna be able to stop it," the 57-year-old retired Windsor, Ont. nurse told The Star.
Fox's health issues began when she was 34. She experienced her first allergic reaction while returning home from lunch with her daughter. Fox told The Star she began experiencing abdominal cramps, diarrhea and began struggling to breathe.
It wasn't until 2012 when an allergist told Fox about lone star ticks and the serious health issues their bite can cause.
In recent years, lone star ticks have spread throughout the United States, Mexico and Canada, bringing with them the risk of developing alpha-gal syndrome which is transmitted through a bite from the species.
According to the Mayo Clinic, this specific species of tick transmits a sugar molecule called alpha-gal that causes causes the body to react when ingesting red meat. Unlike most food allergies, alpha-gal syndrome reactions are often delayed up to six hours after eating red meat.
“My reaction was always eight to 10 hours after exposure,” Fox told The Star. “So imagine you're waking up at 3 a.m., you're thinking you're having a heart attack, you really don't know what's going on in the middle of the night.
Symptoms can range in severity, including headaches and sneezing to hives, swelling of the face, throat and tongue, nausea and diarrhea, shortness of breath and in some cases, anaphylaxis.
Scientists believe the lone star tick carry alpha-gal molecules from animals they commonly bite such as cows and sheep. Previous cases of alpha-gal syndrome have been reported in the United States, Australia and Europe.
The American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology advises a proper diagnosis from an allergist should you frequently experience allergy-like symptoms after eating meat. Aside from avoid meats such as beef and pork when possible, those with more severe allergies should carry an EpiPen with them at all times in case of an emergency.
Even though Fox had been avoiding red-meat for years, she was still experiencing allergic reactions that were unknowingly caused by mammal-based supplements she was taking.
“I had no clue,” she said. “I never knew gelatin, like, you know, Jello, my vitamin D3, all this healthy regime was causing my anaphylaxis.”
Fox's illness has taken a financial toll. Although she regularly avoids red meat and mammal-based products, she has been relying on alternative medicines to help manage her allergy.
“I've spent $400,000 out of pocket (on alternative medicine) to save my life since 2014 because there is no help with our medical system,” she said.
“We’ve had to refinance our home," Fox continued. “My husband says (my) life is more important than money.”
How to prevent tick bites
Aside from using bug repellent that contains DEET, Jeremy Hogeveen, the vector-borne disease coodinator with the Middlesex-London Health Unit told CTV News London that checking your body thoroughly for ticks is essential to tick prevention.
“They start to move into areas where you’re not going to look too often — your armpits, your scalp, behind your ears, behind your knees,” Hogeveen said.
With pets as common carriers for ticks into the home, ensuring that your pet is up to date on tick prevention medications and checking your pet for ticks after spending time outdoors is essential to maintaining your pets overall health, and minimizing your chances of being bitten.