Meat Allergy Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis, and Treatment

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Food allergies are relatively common, affecting up to 8% of children and 2% of adults. Though people can be allergic to beef, pork, lamb, game, or poultry, these meat allergies are less common than other types of food allergies.

Part of the reason for this is that many of the proteins in meat that can trigger an allergy (known as allergens) become less likely to do so when meat is cooked. There is no known cure for a meat allergy, and sometimes the symptoms may recede over time.

Raw steak, pork, and chicken

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This article looks at the symptoms of a meat allergy and explains which meats are most commonly associated with allergies (and why). It also outlines the treatment options for a meat allergy, including those used to treat an allergy emergency.

Meat Allergy Symptoms

With a true meat allergy, the body's immune system will overreact whenever you consume the type of meat that you're allergic to.

An allergic reaction happens when the body releases a chemical known as histamine into the bloodstream. Histamine can trigger immediate and sometimes profound effects, causing blood vessels to dilate and mucus-producing cells to activate.

This can lead to a cascade of symptoms affecting the skin, digestive tract, and respiratory tract, including:

  • Rash
  • Hives (urticaria)
  • Generalized tissue swelling (angioedema)
  • Headaches
  • Stomach cramps
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Sneezing
  • A runny or stuffy nose
  • Swollen, teary eyes
  • Shortness of breath
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Lightheadedness and syncope

Reactions can range from mild to severe. Depending on your sensitivity to the specific meat allergen, symptoms may develop rapidly or over the course of hours.

In rare cases, meat allergy may cause a life-threatening, all-body reaction known as anaphylaxis. Without immediate treatment, anaphylaxis can cause fainting, coma, shock, cardiac or respiratory failure, and even death.

With a red meat allergy, anaphylaxis can occur immediately or up to several hours after the meat has been consumed.

Causes

A meat allergy can develop at any stage in life, and certain people are at greater risk, including those with specific blood types, past infections, tick bites, eczema, or other food allergies.

As with all allergies, the underlying cause of a meat allergy is unknown. With that being said, scientists have gained greater insights into the key factors that trigger red meat allergies and poultry allergies.

Red Meat Allergy

With regards to beef, lamb, and similar meats, the allergen is a specific sugar molecule—alpha-gal sugar—which is found in almost every mammal except humans.

Note that this molecule is not the same as the sugar that is commonly found in cookies, cakes, and other sweet foods, and you do not need to read labels to specifically avoid sugar if you are allergic to alpha-gal.

How Blood Type Affects Red Meat Allergies

Red meat allergy, also called mammalian meat allergy (MMA) or alpha-gal allergy, occurs most frequently in people with an A or O blood type. In fact, people with B or AB blood types are five times less likely to be diagnosed with a red meat allergy. According to researchers, this is because the B antigen in AB or B blood types most resembles the allergen that triggers a meat allergy.

While an A or O blood type may increase a person's risk of a true meat allergy, research suggests that certain infections or co-existing allergies may trigger a symptomatic response or amplify its effects.

A Tick Bite Can Trigger the Allergy

One of the most common triggers is the bite of a lone star tick (named for the single white marking on its back). It is found primarily in the Southern and Central United States, though its range is expanding and includes midwestern states where the wild turkey is common, as well as heavily wooded areas in eastern states where white-tailed deer thrive.

The lone star tick—also known as a turkey tick or northeastern water tick— sucks blood from mammals whose meat contains alpha-gal sugar. When the tick feeds on a human, it introduces those sugars into the bloodstream, potentially making the person sensitive to alpha-gal.

While beef is most commonly associated with this effect, any other meat protein can also trigger a response.

Pork Allergy

Pork can fall under the red meat allergy category. But it's also possible that someone can have a cross-reactive response to pork, rather than true allergy.

With a cross-reactivity, the body reacts to something that resembles a substance you are allergic to. In the case of pork, it's usually cat allergens.

Known as pork-cat syndrome, the reaction is triggered by the similar molecular structure of cat and pork albumin (a type of protein).

While people allergic to pork are typically allergic to cats, the opposite is not true. As such, the cat allergy is considered the true allergy, while the pork allergy is the cross-reactive response.

Poultry Allergy

Allergic reactions to poultry are even less common than those involving red meat.

Egg Allergy

Some people with a known egg allergy will also have a cross-reactive condition known as bird-egg syndrome, in which exposure to down feathers can cause respiratory symptoms. Interestingly enough, the condition is associated with an allergy to chicken eggs but not the chicken itself.

Poultry Meat Allergy

A true poultry allergy is most commonly seen in adolescents and young adults, although the first signs may occur in the preschool years. People with a poultry allergy are often allergic to fish and possibly shrimp as well. For these individuals, a co-existing egg allergy is rare and the risk of anaphylaxis is low.

Diagnosis

You might wonder if you have a meat allergy if you experience symptoms when you eat certain types of meat.

To get a diagnosis, you would need to see a specialist known as an allergist who can perform a series of common allergy tests.

These include:

  • An allergy blood test able to detect antibodies, known as immunoglobulin E (IgE), specific to the different types of meat or poultry
  • A skin prick test in which small amounts of meat protein are placed beneath the skin to see if they trigger a skin reaction
  • An elimination diet to remove suspected meat allergens from your diet to see if the symptoms improve

Less commonly, an oral challenge may be used. This is when someone eats meat in order to see if it triggers a reaction. This should only be performed under the direction of a board-certified allergist and when you can get immediate care if you develop an adverse reaction.

Food Allergies Healthcare Provider Discussion Guide

Get our printable guide for your next healthcare provider's appointment to help you ask the right questions.

Doctor Discussion Guide Woman

Treatment

The best form of treatment for a meat allergy is the avoidance of the specific meat or meat by-products that you're allergic to. This includes checking all food labels (particularly sausages, pâtés, and other mixed-meat products) and restaurant ingredients whenever dining out.

If that type of meat is a major staple of your diet, you should consider meeting with a dietitian or healthcare provider who can help you find alternative sources of protein while ensuring that you meet your daily nutritional needs.

What to Do For Accidental Exposure

If you accidentally eat a problematic meat and have an uncomplicated reaction, an over-the-counter antihistamine will often help relieve rash. Those with asthma will typically need a rescue inhaler to ease respiratory distress.

If you have experienced a severe reaction in the past or are at risk of anaphylaxis, you need to carry an EpiPen to inject yourself with epinephrine (adrenaline) in an emergency situation.

If epinephrine is given at home, emergency care is usually recommended immediately afterward in case additional treatment is required.

Summary

A meat allergy is an uncommon type of food allergy, mainly because the allergens in meat tend to be neutralized during cooking. Even so, meat allergies do occur and can cause symptoms.

A red meat allergy is the most common "true" meat allergy, mainly affecting people with A or O blood types. Pork allergy is often due to a cross-reactive allergy to cats. A poultry allergy is not the same as an egg allergy—and many people who have one of these do not also have the other.

The avoidance of trigger foods is the best way to deal with any food allergy, and a meat allergy is no exception. In the event of accidental exposure, oral antihistamines, a rescue inhaler, or an epinephrine auto-injector (EpiPen) may be needed.

A Word from Verywell

Meat allergies are rare, but some scientists suspect that they might be more common than people think.

To this end, it is important to speak with your healthcare provider if allergy symptoms persist despite the exclusion of a presumed food allergen.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How common are meat allergies?

    Meat allergies are relatively uncommon. Numbers have been increasing in recent years as accurate testing and diagnoses are more readily available.

  • How quickly can a meat allergy be diagnosed?

    Certain allergy tests can be performed very quickly, such as a skin prick test, which can be completed and provide results in about 15 minutes. Other diagnostic methods take longer: Blood test results that look for certain antibodies are usually available in about a week. A trial of an elimination diet could take weeks or months.

  • Do skin prick allergy tests hurt?

    Skin prick allergy tests may cause some brief discomfort, but are not typically painful and do not bleed.

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7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading
  • Wang J, Sampson H. Food allergy. J Clin Invest. 2011;121(3):827-35. doi:10.1172/JCI45434.