Nurse practitioner Kandace Webster began to study alpha-gal on her own a few years ago and has been able to give patients the diagnosis they have been looking for.
Webster, APRN, at T.J. Health Columbia Primary Care, said alpha-gal wasn’t mentioned when she was in school, and from what she’s heard from nurse practitioner students today, it’s still not taught. She does believe, however, that the medical community is becoming more aware of the allergy due to research and physicians hearing about it from each other.
Dr. Kourtney Gentry Gardner, an allergist-immunologist in Bowling Green, diagnoses about five people a month with the alpha-gal allergy, and it’s becoming increasingly more common, she says.
Alpha-gal is a molecule carried in the saliva of the Lone Star tick typically after feeding on the blood of a mammal, according to American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. People who are bitten by the tick, especially those who are bitten repeatedly, are at risk of becoming sensitized and having allergic reactions to the molecule, which is found in most mammalian or red meat.
It is relatively new to the allergy world, as it was only 2009 when Dr. Thomas Platts-Mills at the University of Virginia first published 24 cases of people who had reported they had delayed allergic responses to beef, pork or lamb, according to Dr. Scott Commins, associate professor of medicine in the Division of Rheumatology, Allergy, and Immunology and UNC Thurston Arthritis Research Center.
“There were people who had these sorts of symptoms more than a decade or two ago, it’s just taken science a little while to figure out what’s going on,” says Gardner. Gardner, an allergist and immunologist at the Graves Gilbert Clinic, says there isn’t a great explanation for why there are more diagnoses of alpha-gal in recent years, but believes that part of the reason is because more knowledge of the allergy exists in the medical field thanks to those who have researched it.
In the past, Gardner has seen practitioners in other fields of medicine have no clue what alpha-gal was because the diagnosis was so uncommon.
Now Gardner is seeing the results of the medical field having more publications and overall awareness about alpha-gal.
“I’ve seen a lot more primary care physicians sending me patients with positive labs that they’ve already started the work up for,” said Gardner.
Webster said alpha-gal could be tricky to diagnose due to non-specific symptoms from each patient.
“There are so many health issues before you think alpha-gal,” said Webster.
Webster has noticed that patients she diagnoses with alpha-gal often come to her first with stomach issues instead of the typical hives and itching that many get with an allergic reaction. Webster and her patients then begin to put puzzle pieces together, including discussing tick bites.
In addition, allergists and researchers don’t know why patients have different sensitivities from the allergy.
One alpha-gal sufferer can eat cheese, but the next can’t. Some can tolerate mammal byproducts in medicines, creams, makeup, etc., yet another sufferer can’t.
Some people who have alpha-gal often research the allergy on the Internet, which can be beneficial if reliable. However, the safest thing to do is see an allergist, says Gardner.
Gardner looks at each patient’s labs and history to determine what restrictions they have, helps answer their questions and gives them additional tips to avoid increasing their allergy.
Gardner says once a person has the allergy, there’s only so much that can be done: avoid the products you’re sensitive to, avoid tick bites and carry an Epi-pen.
By avoiding the products and bites, there is a chance for alpha-gal allergy levels to return to negative, says Gardner. The Platts-Mills lab is still conducting research, mainly focusing on what it is about ticks that cause the allergy, creating better tests for alpha-gal and developing allergy shots to desensitize those with alpha-gal, says Commins.
By Anna Buckman