ATLANTA — One day you are able to enjoy steak, hamburgers and sausage, and the next day those foods cause a severe allergic reaction.
People who suffer from a condition called alpha-gal syndrome break out in hives after eating red meat.
“I was fully covered in these hives head to toe. Literally from the top of my head to the bottom of my feet,” said Rob Attaway, who has alpha-gal syndrome.
Attaway first broke out in hives 12 years ago. The Roswell man said he had itching that lasted for hours and was unbearable.
“Literally you could sometimes not even hardly think because you’re itching and the only thing you want to do is try and get relief from the itching,” Attaway said.
He told Channel 2 Action News that he suffered for nine years before finally getting answers from an allergist.
“Found the problem: stop eating red meat. And I stopped eating red meat and within three days of that everything started to clear up,” Attaway said.
He tested positive for alpha-gal syndrome, a delayed allergic reaction to red meat. There is usually a three-to-eight-hour lag time. It’s caused by a bite from the Lone Star tick, the most common tick found in Georgia.
Attaway enjoys playing disc golf and hiking. He believes those activities contributed to how he got the tick bite.
“My face went numb — completely. And I went into and looked in the mirror and I was so contorted. I thought I was having a stroke,” said Jim Dickerson, who also suffers from alpha-gal syndrome.
He thinks a Lone Star tick bit him while he was vacationing in Florida in October 2021. Dickerson first realized something was wrong after passing out while using a leaf blower in his yard.
“It was the worst pain I’ve ever experienced,” Dickerson said.
He said his blood pressure dropped severely from the alpha-gal syndrome, causing him to fall and break his back. “It’s amazing how your life can change from one little bite,” Dickerson said.
Both Dickerson and Attaway can no longer eat their favorite foods.
“I love the pork barbecue ribs,” Dickerson said.
“Hot dogs,” Attaway said is what he misses most.
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Both men said they now eat a lot of chicken. Turkey, fish and plant-based meat alternatives are also safe foods.
Even with avoiding red meat, eating at restaurants or a friend’s house can be dangerous. Red meat can be hiding in side dishes.
“One of the dishes that I ate was probably cooked and seasoned with maybe a ham hock or piece of pork or piece of beef. And just that was enough to trigger that,” Dickerson said.
Red meat is also found in medications.
“Then I found out I got worse taking Claritin and I stopped using that,” Attaway said.
Dr. Ted Lee, with the Peachtree Allergy and Asthma Clinic, has seen more than 100 alpha-gal patients over the past 37 years.
He said it’s spread to people by a tick that has fed on a mammal like a deer or a cow.
“It brings those chemicals, those antigens from that mammal into the human when it feeds on them, and then it causes an aberrant immune response,” Lee said.
He said there is no cure for alpha-gal. Therefore, preventing tick bites is key.
“If you’re outside, you’re subjected to ticks,” Attaway said.
“But you need to be careful. Use sprays, whatever and avoid really staying in the woods,” Dickerson said.
After spending time outside, Lee recommends doing a body inspection for ticks. These simple steps can help you avoid this life-changing condition.
“Alpha-gal can wreak some havoc on you,” Dickerson said.
“I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy,” Attaway said.
Both men said they have not had any major outbreaks since their diagnosis.
They both carry an EpiPen, just in case they accidentally eat any red meat. The condition could cause their throat to close up and cut off their oxygen supply.
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