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Overview

If your nose gets stuffy or begins to run after eating meat, or you become nauseated or develop a rash, you may have a meat allergy.

Meat from any kind of mammal — beef, lamb, pork, goat, and even whale and seal — can cause an allergic reaction. While we do not definitively know the number of people in the U.S. affected by meat allergy, we do know that it is uncommon.

A bite from the Lone Star tick can cause people to develop an allergy to red meat, including beef and pork. The Lone Star tick has been implicated in initiating the red meat allergy in the US and this tick is found predominantly in the Southeast from Texas, to Iowa, into New England.

A meat allergy can develop any time in life. If you are allergic to one type of meat, it is possible you also are allergic to other meats, as well as to poultry, such as chicken, turkey and duck.

Studies have found that a very small percentage of children with milk allergy are also allergic to beef. Talk with your allergist to see if you should remove beef from your milk-allergic child’s diet.

Symptoms

  • Hives or skin rash
  • Nausea, stomach cramps, indigestion, vomiting, diarrhea
  • Stuffy/runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Headaches
  • Asthma
  • Anaphylaxis, a severe potentially deadly allergic reaction that restricts breathing

Triggers

Eating meat from mammals and sometimes poultry

Management and Treatment

  • Avoid foods that trigger symptoms
  • Control some symptoms with antihistamines and corticosteroids
  • Reverse severe reactions, particularly anaphylaxis with prescription injected epinephrine

Symptoms

Meat allergies develop when the body’s immune system becomes sensitized and overreacts to something in the environment that typically causes no problem in most people.

  • Hives or skin rash
  • Nausea, stomach cramps, indigestion, vomiting, diarrhea
  • Stuffy/runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Headaches
  • Asthma
  • Anaphylaxis, a severe potentially deadly allergic reaction that restricts breathing

If you are allergic to meat, your body considers meat to be a physical threat. The first time you have this response, your immune system makes specific immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies to fight the threat off. These antibodies attached to immune cells throughout your body.

After that, each time you eat meat, the allergen binds to the IgE antibodies and causes the cells to release massive amounts of histamine and other chemicals to try to protect you.

Depending on the tissue in which these antibodies are released, these chemicals will cause you to have symptoms that can range from mild to severe. A severe allergic reaction can include anaphylaxis, a potentially life-threatening reaction that must be treated immediately.

A bite from the Lone Star tick can cause people to develop an allergy to red meat, including beef and pork. This specific allergy is related to a carbohydrate called alpha-gal and is best diagnosed with a blood test. Although reactions to foods typically occur immediately, in the instance of allergic reactions to alpha-gal, symptoms often take several hours to develop. Owing to the significant delay between eating red meat and the appearance of an allergic reaction, it can be a challenge to connect the culprit foods to symptoms. Therefore, an expert evaluation from an allergist familiar with the condition is recommended. The Lone Star tick has been implicated in initiating the red meat allergy in the US and this tick is found predominantly in the Southeast from Texas, to Iowa, into New England.

Diagnosis

Symptoms of meat allergy can vary from person to person, and you may not always experience the same symptoms during every reaction. Allergic reactions to food can affect the skin, respiratory tract, gastrointestinal tract, and cardiovascular system. Meat allergies may also develop at various ages.

If you suspect that you have a meat allergy, see an allergist, who will decide which tests to perform, determine if a food allergy exists, and work with you on managing your allergy.

To make a diagnosis, allergists ask detailed questions about your medical history and your symptoms. Be prepared to answer questions about:

  • What and how much you ate
  • How long it took for symptoms to develop
  • What symptoms you experienced and how long they lasted.

The allergist will usually order a blood test and/or perform a skin test. These indicate whether food-specific immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies are present in your body.

  • Skin tests provide results in about 20 minutes. The skin on your arm or back is pricked with a sterile small probe that contains a tiny amount of the food allergen. The tests, which are not painful but can be uncomfortable, are considered positive if a wheal (resembling the bump from a mosquito bite) develops at the site.
  • Blood tests measure the amount of IgE antibody to the specific food(s) being tested. Results are typically available in about one to two weeks and are reported as a numerical value.

Your allergist will use the results of these tests in making a diagnosis. While both of these diagnostic tools can signal a food allergy, an allergist may need to consider your medical history and conduct additional tests before confirming your diagnosis.

In some cases, an allergist may wish to conduct a double-blind, placebo-controlled oral food challenge, which is considered to be the gold standard for food allergy diagnosis. It can be costly and time-consuming. In some cases it is potentially dangerous, so it is not routinely performed.

During an oral food challenge, the patient is fed tiny amounts of the suspected trigger food in increasing doses over a period of time under strict supervision by an allergist. Emergency medication and emergency equipment are on hand during this procedure.

Oral food challenges also may be performed to determine if a patient has outgrown a food allergy.

Management and Treatment

Once a meat allergy is diagnosed, the best treatment is to avoid the trigger. Carefully check ingredient labels of food products, and learn whether what you need to avoid is known by other names.

Be extra careful when you eat out. Waiters (and sometimes the kitchen staff) may not always know the ingredients of every dish on the menu. Depending on your sensitivity, even just walking into a kitchen or another place where food is prepared can cause an allergic reaction.

All patients with food allergies must make some changes in what they eat. Your allergist can direct you to helpful resources, including special cookbooks, patient support groups, and registered dietitians, who can help you plan meals.

Managing a severe food reaction with epinephrine

A food allergy, including a meat allergy, can cause symptoms that range from mild to life-threatening; the severity of each reaction is unpredictable. People who have previously experienced only mild symptoms may suddenly experience a life-threatening reaction called anaphylaxis. In the U.S., food allergy is the leading cause of anaphylaxis outside the hospital setting.

Epinephrine is the first-line treatment for anaphylaxis, which results when exposure to an allergen triggers a flood of chemicals that can send your body into shock. Anaphylaxis can occur within seconds or minutes, can worsen quickly, and can be deadly.

Once you’ve been diagnosed with a food allergy, your allergist will likely prescribe an epinephrine auto-injector and teach you how to use it. Check the expiration date of your auto-injector, note the expiration date on your calendar, and ask your pharmacy about reminder services for prescription renewals.

Be sure to have two doses available, as the severe reaction may reoccur. If you’ve had a history of severe reactions, take epinephrine as soon as you suspect you’ve eaten an allergy-causing food or if you feel a reaction coming on. Epinephrine should be used immediately if you experience severe symptoms such as shortness of breath, repetitive coughing, weak pulse, hives, tightness in your throat, trouble breathing or swallowing, or a combination of symptoms from different body areas such as hives, rashes, or swelling on the skin coupled with vomiting, diarrhea, or abdominal pain. Repeated doses of epinephrine may be necessary.

Even if you are uncertain whether a reaction warrants epinephrine, use it right away; the benefits of epinephrine far outweigh the risk.

Common side effects of epinephrine may include anxiety, restlessness, dizziness, and shakiness. Rarely, the medication can lead to abnormal heart rate or rhythm, heart attack, sharp increase in blood pressure, and fluid build-up in the lungs. If you have certain pre-existing conditions, you may be at a higher risk for adverse effects with epinephrine.

Your allergist will provide you with a written emergency treatment plan that outlines which medications should be administered and when.

Once epinephrine has been administered, immediately call 911 and inform the dispatcher that epinephrine was given and that more may be needed.

Other medications may be prescribed to treat symptoms of a food allergy, but it is important to note that there is no substitute for epinephrine: It is the only medication that can reverse the life-threatening symptoms of anaphylaxis.

Managing Food Allergies in Children

Because fatal and near-fatal food allergy reactions, like other food allergy symptoms, can develop when a child is not with his or her family, parents need to make sure that their child’s school, daycare, or other program has a written emergency action plan with instructions on preventing, recognizing, and managing these episodes in class and during activities such as sporting events and field trips. A nonprofit group, Food Allergy Research & Education,offers has a list of resources for schools, parents, and students in managing food allergies.

If your child has been prescribed an auto-injector, be sure that you and those responsible for supervising your child understand how to use it.

Additional Resources

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