Can a Tick Bite Make You a Vegetarian?

If you've been trying to become a vegetarian but just aren't able to find the will, there might be a solution: Go hiking with hot pants on.

Apparently, experts are attributing an allergy to red meat, pork, and lamb -- in other words, all commonly consumed mammals -- to a bite from a tick, specifically the lone-star tick, named for the white spot on its back.

Two allergists at the University of Virginia have data showing that the food allergy, called "alpha-gal," which is short for "galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose," is affecting more than 1,500 Americans, according to CNN. Cases have been identified throughout the southeastern and south-central United States.

People with this allergy experience symptoms ranging from hives to full-fledged anaphylactic shock, four to six hours after consuming mammalian flesh. This delayed onset of symptoms is rather unusual for an allergic reaction and might be partly to blame for why it has taken so long for the allergy to be taken seriously. The actual allergy is not new -- some report having experienced symptoms, like waking up with a body full of hives and a frightening feeling that their "neck was on fire," for 11 years or longer, according to CNN.

Alpha-gal is the name for a group of sugars stuck together in the blood. It's found in the meat of all non-primate mammals (so cannibals need not worry). They include horses, deer, cats, dogs, and goats.

A greater number of tick bites means a higher level of allergy, according to Thomas Platts-Mills, one of the researchers at the University of Virginia responsible for the study of the allergy -- and also an alpha-gal allergy sufferer. He measured the allergy mechanism in his blood shorty after receiving countless tick bites while hiking in the woods and found that it had risen several hundred points. Researchers also suspect that bites from larvae and baby ticks might be more highly correlated with the allergy.

Alpha-gal is not a disease like Lyme or Rocky Mountain spotted fever; symptoms appear only after eating meat. And apparently the allergy is even more unusual because it comes in response to a sugar rather than a protein like most allergies do. It's so weird that my mind fantasizes about militant vegetarian groups designing it in a lab, or a divine hand guiding its creation to spare the innocent quadripeds.

Though this allergy doesn't seem to be connected to fish or chicken consumption, it might be the most effective way to recruit semivegetarians that I've ever heard of.

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Camille Lamb Guzman is a journalist who writes on wellness, travel, and culture. She is also finishing a book of creative nonfiction.