Meat Allergy Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis, and Treatment

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Food allergies are relatively common, affecting up to eight percent of children and two percent 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. Part of this is due to the fact that many of the proteins in meat that can trigger an allergy (allergens) are broken down when they are cooked. While there is no known cure for a meat allergy, such an allergy is rare and the symptoms will often recede over time.

Symptoms

With a true meat allergy, the body's immune system will overreact whenever you consume meat for reasons not entirely understood. The body reacts by releasing of a chemical known as 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 mucus-producing cells to activate, leading to an array of dermatologic, gastrointestinal, and respiratory symptoms, including:

  • Headaches
  • Rash
  • Hives (urticaria)
  • Generalized tissue swelling (angioedema)
  • Indigestion and nausea
  • Stomach cramps
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Sneezing
  • A runny or stuffy nose
  • Swollen, teary eyes
  • Asthma
  • Rapid heart rate

Depending on your sensitivity to the specific meat allergen, symptoms may develop rapidly or over the course of hours.

Those that appear rapidly tend to be severe and, in rare cases, may lead to 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.

What is unusual about meat allergies (most specifically red meat allergies) is that delayed reactions can be every bit as severe. With almost every other type of food allergy, a delayed response is typically manageable. Not so with a red meat allergy for which anaphylaxis can occur many hours after a 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, atopic dermatitis, or co-existing 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, respectively.

Red Meat Allergy

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. According to researchers, this is because the B antigen in AB or B blood types most resembles the allergen that triggers a meat allergy, providing those individuals with an innate protection.

With regards to beef, lamb, pork, and other mammalian meats, the allergen in question is sugar, specifically a type known as alpha-gal sugar found in almost every mammal except humans.

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

One of the most common triggers is the bite of a lone star tick (named for these single white marking on its back). Found primarily in the Southern and Central United States but expanding elsewhere, 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, sensitizing the person to alpha-gal.

While beef is most commonly associated with this effect, any other meat protein can also trigger a hypersensitive response. According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology (AAAAI), as many as 20 percent of American children have a beef allergy, particularly those with atopic dermatitis. Of these, up to 93 percent will also have a milk allergy.

Pork Allergy

Pork allergies, by contrast, are not always a true allergy but rather a cross-reactive response to cats. Known as pork-cat syndrome, the allergy is triggered by the similar molecular structure of cat and pork albumin. 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. If an allergy does occur, it is usually the result of undercooked chicken, turkey, or other wild or farmed poultry. 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 chicken eggs but not the chicken itself.

A true poultry allergy is most commonly seen in adolescents and young adults, although the first signs of hypersensitivity may occur in the pre-school years. People with a poultry allergy are usually 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

A meat allergy is usually suspected if you experience symptoms whenever you eat certain types of meat. To confirm your suspicions, you would need to see a specialist known as an allergist who can to 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 a which small amounts of meat protein are placed beneath the skin to see if any 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 to introduce certain meats into the diet to see if they trigger a reaction. This would only be considered if your symptoms are mild and conducted under the strict supervision of a board-certified allergist.

Treatment

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

If the meat is a major staple of your diet, you should consider meeting with a dietician who can help you find alternate sources of protein while ensuring you meet your daily nutritional needs.

If you accidentally eat a problematic meat and have an uncomplicated reaction, an over-the-counter antihistamine will often help relieve rash or mild respiratory symptoms. A corticosteroid nasal spray can also be used to open blocked nasal passages. People with asthma will typically need a rescue inhaler to ease respiratory distress.

However, 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. Anaphylaxis always requires emergency, in-hospital care, usually with intravenous (IV) corticosteroids, antihistamines, and IV fluids.

A Word From Verywell

Some scientists suspect that meat allergies are far more common than presumed, with some cases of anaphylaxis believed misattributed to other more common causes, such as a nut or shellfish allergy.

To this end, it is important to speak with your doctor if allergy symptoms persist despite the exclusion of a presumed food allergen. This is especially true in areas where the lone star tick is endemic. These include Midwestern states where the wild turkey is common and heavily wooded areas where white-tailed deer thrive.

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Article Sources
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