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It’s not just ticks: Bites from this insect could make you allergic to meat too, scientists say

Researchers at Wake Forest University say chiggers, small red bugs that inhabit rocks and other outdoor areas, may also cause allergies to meat, similar to the alpha-gal allergy spread by some ticks.
Researchers at Wake Forest University say chiggers, small red bugs that inhabit rocks and other outdoor areas, may also cause allergies to meat, similar to the alpha-gal allergy spread by some ticks. W.J. Wrenn, University of North Dakota

Scientists have known for a few years that bites from the lone star tick could cause a sudden allergy to meat. But now researchers say another bloodsucking culprit may be causing the condition as well.

They’re called “chiggers,” although you may know them by other names, like redbugs, harvest mites or berry bugs.

They’re a type of tiny, creepy-crawly red mite — and scientists at North Carolina’s Wake Forest University say bites from these annoying outdoor pests could be causing people to develop allergies to red meat, according to a news release.

The allergic reaction isn’t to meat itself, but rather to a molecule found in pork, beef and meat from other mammals called alpha-gal, the Kansas City Star reported. People who have the allergy tend to eat a meal of red meat, then find themselves feeling sick hours later. Sometimes the symptoms can be serious: hives, stomach problems, and sometimes even anaphylactic shock, which can be deadly, the Kansas City Star reported. The delay in symptoms can lead to confusion as to what may have prompted to illness, according to the paper.

It’s widely known that the tick that spreads the condition in the United States is found across most of the eastern half of the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control. It’s identified by a white “lone star” on its back.

Residents of the Kansas City area say that while the alpha-gal allergy, passed by the lone star tick, is not a tragedy, it is an inconvenience. They must now avoid eating all forms of mammalian meat. A KC allergist said the allergy can be passed t

But scientists are now concerned the tick may not be the only spreader of the alpha-gal meat allergy.

“If a patient comes in telling me they ate red meat for dinner and then hours later woke up with anaphylaxis, I suspect an alpha-gal allergy,” said Russell Scott Traister, lead author of a new study on the phenomenon, in a news release. “With those symptoms, doctors usually ask if the person has had a tick bite recently. But we started seeing patients with the same symptoms who said they hadn’t had a tick bite, only chigger bites.”

The scientists say they identified three cases where patients suffering from the allergy did not recall having any tick bites but did remember being bitten by chiggers, and they cite another study where about 15 other allergy sufferers recalled the same, Business Insider reported.

There is no concrete evidence chiggers can spread the alpha-gal meat allergy yet, however. It’s possible the chigger bites people remember may actually have been from small, juvenile ticks called “seed ticks,” according to a study published in July.

The next step will be to examine whether chiggers can inject alpha-gal into the body in the same way ticks can, according to the scientists.

“In the meantime, we want allergists to be aware that patients may report chigger bites, and based on that fact alone should not dismiss alpha-gal sensitization as a possible diagnosis” for apparent meat allergies, Traister said in the news release.

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