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, a meat allergy is 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 allergenic when meat is cooked. While there is no known cure for a meat allergy, it is generally considered rare and symptoms tend to 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 meat (for reasons not entirely understood). The body reacts by releasing 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 tracts, 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

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.

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.

In meat allergies (most specifically red meat allergies), delayed reactions can be severe. With almost every other type of food allergy, a delayed response is typically manageable. Not so with a red meat allergy: Anaphylaxis can occur many hours after meat has been consumed.


A meat allergy can cause the same symptoms as any food allergy, including rash, breathing problems, diarrhea, vomiting, and stomach cramps. On rare occasions, it can cause a potentially life-threatening, whole-body allergy known as anaphylaxis.


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 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 a specific sugar molecule, a type known as alpha-gal sugar found in almost every mammal except humans.

This specific sugar molecule is not what makes 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 found to be allergic to alpha-gal.

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.

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 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, certain blood types are protective against red meat allergy. People with B or AB blood types are five times less likely to be diagnosed with a red meat 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 allergy to 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 preschool 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.


A red meat allergy, caused by a reaction to an allergen called alpha gal sugar, is most often seen in people with A or O blood types. Pork or poultry allergies are more often the result of a cross-reactive allergy to cats or eggs, respectively.


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 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 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 should only be performed under the direction of a board-certified allergist.


A meat allergy can be diagnosed by a specialist known as an allergist and may involve a blood antibody test, skin prick test, elimination diet, or oral challenge.

Food Allergies Healthcare Provider Discussion Guide

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

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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 dietitian or healthcare provider 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. 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 required at home, emergency care is usually recommended immediately after in case additional medication is required.


The best way to deal with a meat allergy is to avoid eating the meat in question. Oral antihistamines or a rescue inhaler may be needed if meat is accidentally eaten. People at risk of anaphylaxis need to carry an epinephrine auto-injector (EpiPen) in the event of an emergency.


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 the exact same symptoms as any other food allergy, including anaphylaxis.

A red meat allergy is the most common "true" meat allergy, mainly affecting people with A or O blood types. Pork and poultry allergies are more often due to a cross-reactive allergy to cats and eggs, respectively.

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

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 allergy or shellfish allergy.

To this end, it is important to speak with your healthcare provider 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 eastern states in heavily wooded areas where white-tailed deer thrive.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • 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.

  • How common are meat allergies?

    Meat allergies are relatively uncommon, but might be because many diagnoses are missed. Numbers have been increasing in recent years as accurate testing and diagnoses are more readily available.

  • 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.