CHAPEL HILL, North Carolina –Most of us enjoy a good, juicy burger from time to time.
But imagine if eating red meat triggered a severe allergic reaction.
At one time, it was very rare reaction and limited to a few hundred people in the southern United States. But now, it's starting to migrate north and creating a health problem that is on the rise.
Like many Americans, Darrow enjoys a good steak.
"Three hours after that delicious beef tenderloin I started itching."
It got so bad she ended up in the ER.
"It felt like fire ants from head to toe."
Turns out Darrow was suffering from an unusual food allergy and she's not alone.
"We are confident of 5,000 cases," said Dr. Scott Commins, a Medicine and Pediatrics associate professor at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.
"They had no idea that two hours after eating a hamburger that in another two hours they'd be covered in hives and have severe itching."
Dr. Commins and his team at the University of North Carolina wanted to know what was causing an allergic reaction in people like Darrow who never had a food allergy.
Dr. Commins says the culprit appears to be the Lone Star Tick, prevalent in the southeast.
They reached out to patients who reported reactions.
"Sure enough, over 90 percent of them reported recent tick bites."
It's called the alpha-gal allergy, named after a sugar found in the blood of certain animals such as cows and pigs.
"A tick takes a blood meal off a lower mammal like a deer or dog and then bites a human," explained Dr. Commins.
The tick has alpha-gal in its saliva, which can trigger an allergic reaction when that person eats red meat.
RESEARCH: Researchers are also trying to figure out what it is about ticks that causes this reaction. They're looking at deer blood, tick saliva, and bacteria from ticks as possible causes, and there's now research around the world, with cases of meat allergies resulting from tick bites coming from Australia and Europe, although as a result of different kinds of ticks. Once this is better understood, there's hope of someday having a treatment that could desensitize people through allergy shots. In the meantime, researchers say it's important that medical professionals other than allergists know about this condition. They say doctors need to understand that abdominal pain is a key marker of this allergy and that symptoms are delayed.
But there is some good news.
"I am so careful now when I go outside no matter where I am," said Darrow.
So she doesn't become a meal for a hungry tick again.
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