Symptoms, causes, diagnosis and treatment of meat allergies
Food allergies are relatively common, affecting up to 8% of children and 2% of adults. While people can have allergic reactions to beef, pork, lamb, game or poultry, meat allergy is a less common cause of food allergy compared to cow’s milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, wheat, shellfish and fish.
This is in part because many of the proteins in meat that can trigger an allergy (called allergens) become less allergenic when the meat is cooked. Although there is no known cure for a meat allergy, such an allergy is rare and symptoms can often go away over time.
Symptoms of meat allergy
With a true meat allergy, the body’s immune system will overreact every time you consume meat (for reasons that are not fully understood). The body responds by releasing a chemical called histamine into the bloodstream.Reactions can range from mild to severe.
Histamine can trigger immediate and sometimes profound effects, causing blood vessels to dilate and activation of mucus-producing cells, resulting in a range of dermatological, gastrointestinal and respiratory symptoms, including:
- Hives (hives)
- Generalized swelling of tissues (angioedema)
- Indigestion and nausea
- Stomach cramps
- A runny or stuffy nose
- Puffy and watery eyes
- Asthma attack or exacerbation
- Rapid heart rate
Depending on your sensitivity to the specific meat allergen, symptoms may develop quickly or over hours.
Those that appear quickly tend to be severe and, in rare cases, can lead to a life-threatening bodily reaction known as anaphylaxis. Without immediate treatment, anaphylaxis can cause fainting, coma, shock, heart or respiratory failure, and even death.
In meat allergies (especially red meat allergies), delayed reactions can be serious. With almost all other types of food allergies, a delayed response is generally manageable. This is not the case with a red meat allergy: anaphylaxis can occur several hours after eating meat.
A meat allergy can develop at any time in life, and some people are at higher risk, including those with specific blood types, past infections, tick bites, atopic dermatitis, or food allergies. coexisting.
As with all allergies, the underlying cause of a meat allergy is unknown. That being said, scientists have a better understanding of the key factors that trigger red meat allergies and poultry allergies, respectively.
Red meat allergy
Red meat allergy, also known as mammalian meat allergy (MMA) or alpha-gal allergy, occurs most often in people with blood group A or O. According to the researchers, this is because the The B antigen in AB or B blood groups most closely resembles the allergen that triggers a meat allergy, providing these people with innate protection.
When it comes to beef, lamb, pork, and other mammalian meats, the allergen in question is a specific sugar molecule, a type known as alpha-gal sugar found in almost all mammals except humans.
This specific sugar molecule is not what makes the sugar that is commonly found in cookies, cakes, and other sugary foods, and you don’t need to read labels to specifically avoid “sugar” if you are recognized. to be allergic to alpha-gal.
While an A or O blood group can increase the risk of a meat allergy, research suggests that certain infections or coexisting allergies can trigger a symptomatic response or amplify its effects.
One of the most common triggers is a bite from a solitary star tick (named after the only white mark on its back). It is mainly found in the southern and central United States, but expanding elsewhere.
The solitary tick, also known as the turkey tick or the northeast water tick, sucks the blood of mammals whose meat contains alpha-gal sugar. When the tick feeds on a human, it introduces these sugars into the bloodstream, sensitizing the person to alpha-gal.
While beef is most commonly associated with this effect, any other meat protein can trigger a hypersensitive response as well.
According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology (AAAAI), certain blood types protect against red meat allergy. People with blood group B or AB are five times less likely to be diagnosed with a red meat allergy.
Pork allergies, on the other hand, are not always a true allergy but rather a cross-reaction to cats. Known as pig-cat syndrome, the allergy is triggered by the similar molecular structure of cat and pork albumin.
While people with allergies to pork are generally allergic to cats, the reverse is not true. As such, cat allergy is considered the true allergy while pork allergy is the cross response.
Allergic reactions to poultry are even less common than those involving red meat.If an allergy occurs, it is usually the result of undercooked chicken, turkey or other wild or farm poultry.
Some people with a known allergy to eggs will also have a cross-reactive disease known as bird egg syndrome, in which exposure to fluff can cause respiratory symptoms. Interestingly enough, the disease is associated with an allergy to chicken eggs, but not to the hen itself.
True poultry allergy is most often seen in adolescents and young adults, although the first signs of hypersensitivity may occur in the preschool years.People with allergies to poultry are usually allergic to fish and possibly shrimp. For these people, a coexisting egg allergy is rare and the risk of anaphylaxis is low.
A meat allergy is usually suspected if you experience symptoms every time you eat certain types of meat. To confirm your suspicions, you will need to see a specialist known as an allergist who can perform a series of common allergy tests. These include:
- An allergy blood test that can detect antibodies, called immunoglobulin E (IgE), specific to different types of meat or poultry
- A skin test in which small amounts of meat protein are placed under the skin to see if any of them are triggering a skin reaction
- An elimination diet to remove suspected meat allergens from your diet to see if symptoms improve
Less commonly, an oral challenge can be used to introduce certain meats into the diet to see if they trigger a reaction. This should only be done under the direction of a certified allergist.
Discussion Guide for Health Care Providers on Food Allergies
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The best form of treatment for a meat allergy is to avoid specific meat or meat by-products. This includes checking all food labels (especially sausages, pies, and other meat products) and restaurant ingredients each time you dine out.
If meat is a major staple in your diet, you should consider meeting with a dietitian or health care professional who can help you find other sources of protein while making sure you meet your daily nutritional needs.
If you accidentally eat problematic meat and have a simple reaction, an over-the-counter antihistamine will often help relieve rashes. Asthmatics will usually need a rescue inhaler to relieve respiratory distress.
If you have ever had a severe reaction or are at risk of anaphylaxis, you should take an EpiPen to inject epinephrine (adrenaline) in an emergency. If epinephrine is needed at home, emergency care is usually recommended immediately afterwards in case additional medication is needed.
A word from Verywell
Some scientists suspect that meat allergies are much more common than you might think, with some cases of anaphylaxis wrongly attributed to other more common causes, such as an allergy to nuts or shellfish.
To this end, it is important to speak to your healthcare professional if allergy symptoms persist despite the exclusion of a suspected food allergen. This is especially true in areas where the solitary tick is endemic. These include the Midwestern states where wild turkeys are common and eastern states in heavily forested areas where white-tailed deer thrive.
Frequently Asked Questions
How quickly can a meat allergy be diagnosed?
Some allergy tests can be done very quickly, such as a skin prick test, which can be done and give results in about 15 minutes. Other diagnostic methods take longer: Results of blood tests that look for certain antibodies are usually available in about a week. Trying an elimination diet can take weeks or months.
How common are meat allergies?
Meat allergies are relatively rare, but can be due to the fact that many diagnoses are missed. The numbers have increased in recent years as accurate tests and diagnostics are more readily available.
Do skin prick allergy tests hurt?
Prick allergy skin testing may cause brief discomfort, but is usually not painful and does not bleed.