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The CDC says millions of Americans might be living with an allergy to meat

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The CDC says close to half a million Americans might be living with an allergy to meat, and many haven't been diagnosed.

SCOTT COMMINS: Alpha-gal syndrome refers to the allergy that can develop following lone star tick bites.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Dr. Scott Commins is an allergy specialist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He's an expert in alpha-gal syndrome, sometimes referred to as the red meat allergy.

COMMINS: It's definitely more than just not eating steak, because anywhere between 30- to 50% of patients with AGS have to avoid dairy in all forms.

FADEL: And avoid products that contain gelatin and more.

COMMINS: Some of our medications are truly derived from animals, so it goes well beyond just avoiding red meat.

MARTÍNEZ: Symptoms of alpha-gal syndrome include itching and hives, but some people can have more serious reactions, such as Candice Matthis found out as she was bitten by a tick in 2009.

CANDICE MATTHIS: I woke up in the middle of the night several times after eating pork sausage, and my blood pressure tanked. I had horrible GI distress, almost passed out.

FADEL: And initially, she was told she had other allergies. Matthis was given supplements with meat-based ingredients.

MATTHIS: Five days into that regimen, I woke up to the room spinning, seeing double, my heart racing.

MARTÍNEZ: Matthis was having a severe allergic reaction. Her misdiagnosis may not be surprising given that a CDC survey of health care providers found 42% of them had not even heard of alpha-gal syndrome. But Dr. Scott Commins says it only takes a simple test to confirm that someone has the allergy.

COMMINS: The blood test itself basically detects the presence of the allergic response to the alpha-gal sugar.

FADEL: That's the sugar that gets transmitted to humans by the ticks, which are spreading.

COMMINS: The lone star ticks are really found throughout the Southeast, in the mid-Atlantic states and now extending up into the Great Lake areas.

FADEL: So if you're hiking in those regions, Commins recommends staying out of long grass, regularly checking for ticks and using repellents.

MARTÍNEZ: And after being diagnosed with alpha-gal syndrome in 2019, Matthis and a friend are now raising awareness about AGS.

MATTHIS: Debbie and I were actually diagnosed three months apart. So we began a blog called Two Alpha Gals, and we are now helping other people navigate this lifestyle and helping them find joy again.

FADEL: Making alpha-gal sound less like an allergy and more like a superpower. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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