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Overview

If your nose gets stuffy or begins to run after eating meat, or you become nauseated or develop a rash, you may have a meat allergy.

Meat from any kind of mammal — beef, lamb, pork, goat, and even whale and seal — can cause an allergic reaction. While meat allergy is uncommon, more cases have been reported in the past few years and the numbers continue to rise due to increased recognition of the diagnosis.

A bite from the Lone Star tick can cause people to develop an allergy to red meat, including beef and pork. The Lone Star tick has been implicated in initiating the red meat allergy in the US, and this tick is found predominantly in the Southeast, from Texas to Iowa and into New England.

A meat allergy can develop any time in life. If you are allergic to one type of meat, it is possible you also are allergic to other meats, as well as to poultry such as chicken, turkey and duck.

Studies have found that a very small percentage of children with milk allergy are also allergic to beef. As your allergist if your child should be tested for an allergy to beef or pork before you remove beef or pork from your milk-allergic child’s diet.

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Symptoms

Food allergies develop when the body’s immune system becomes sensitized and overreacts to food proteins that typically causes no problem in most people.

  • Vomiting
  • Stomach cramps
  • Indigestion
  • Diarrhea
  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath, difficulty breathing
  • Repetitive cough
  • Tightness in throat, hoarse voice
  • Weak pulse
  • Pale or blue coloring of the skin
  • Hives
  • Swelling, can affect the tongue and/or lips
  • Dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Anaphylaxis, a severe, potentially life-threatening allergic reaction

Triggers

Eating meat from mammals, and sometimes poultry.

If you are allergic to meat, your body considers meat to be a physical threat. The first time you have this response, your immune system makes specific immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies to fight the threat; these antibodies attach to immune cells throughout your body.

After that, each time you eat meat, the allergen binds to the IgE antibodies and causes the cells to release histamine and other chemicals to try to protect you.

Depending on the tissue in which these antibodies are released, these chemicals will cause you to have symptoms that can range from mild to severe. A severe allergic reaction can include anaphylaxis, a potentially life-threatening reaction that must be treated immediately with epinephrine.

A bite from the Lone Star tick can cause people to develop an allergy to red meat, including beef and pork. This specific allergy is related to a carbohydrate called alpha-gal and is best diagnosed with a blood test. Although reactions to foods typically occur immediately, in the instance of allergic reactions to alpha-gal, symptoms often take several hours to develop. Owing to the significant delay between eating red meat and the appearance of an allergic reaction, it can be a challenge to connect the culprit foods to symptoms. Therefore, an expert evaluation from an allergist familiar with the condition is recommended. The Lone Star tick has been implicated in initiating the red meat allergy in the US, and this tick is found predominantly in the Southeast, from Texas to Iowa and into New England.

Diagnosis

Symptoms of meat allergy can vary from person to person, and you may not always experience the same symptoms during every reaction. Allergic reactions to food can affect the skin, respiratory tract, gastrointestinal tract, and cardiovascular system. Meat allergies may also develop at various ages.

If you suspect that you have a meat allergy, it’s time to see an allergist. They can determine which tests to perform and whether a food allergy exists, and then work with you on managing your allergy.

To make a diagnosis, allergists ask detailed questions about your medical history and your symptoms. Be prepared to answer questions about:

  • What and how much you ate
  • How long it took for symptoms to develop
  • What symptoms you experienced and how long they lasted.
  • Whether you have eaten the meat again or in different forms without developing symptoms.

Your allergist will usually perform a skin test and/or order a blood test. These indicate whether food-specific immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies are present in your body.

  • Skin tests provide results in about 15 minutes. The skin on your forearm or back is pricked with a small sterile probe that contains a tiny amount of the food allergen. The tests, which are not painful but can be uncomfortable, are considered positive if a large enough wheal (resembling the bump from a mosquito bite) develops at the site.
  • Blood tests measure the amount of IgE antibody to the specific food(s) being tested. Results are typically available in about one week and are reported as a numerical value.

Your allergist will use the results of these tests, along with the clinical history you provide, in making a diagnosis. While your history and these diagnostic tools can signal a food allergy, an allergist may need to conduct additional tests before confirming your diagnosis.

In some cases, an allergist may wish to conduct an oral food challenge, which is the gold standard for food allergy diagnosis. It can be costly and time-consuming. In some cases it is potentially dangerous, so it is not routinely performed to confirm an allergy when the clinical history and testing are consistent with a food allergy. It is more often performed when the history and/or testing are not consistent with or conclusive enough of a true food allergy.

During an oral food challenge, the patient is fed tiny amounts of the suspected trigger food in increasing doses over a period of time under strict supervision by an allergist. Emergency medication and emergency equipment are on hand during this procedure.

Oral food challenges also may be performed to determine if a patient has outgrown a food allergy.

Management and Treatment

Once a meat allergy is diagnosed, the best treatment is to avoid the trigger. Carefully check ingredient labels of food products and learn whether what you need to avoid is known by other names.

Be extra careful when you eat out. Waiters, and sometimes the kitchen staff, may not always know the ingredients of every dish on the menu.

Anyone with a food allergy must make some changes in what they eat. Your allergist can direct you to helpful resources, including special cookbooks, patient support groups, and registered dietitians who can help you plan meals.

Managing a severe food reaction with epinephrine

A food allergy, including a meat allergy, can cause symptoms that range from mild to life-threatening; the severity of each reaction is unpredictable. People who have previously experienced only mild symptoms may suddenly experience a more severe reaction, including anaphylaxis. In the US, food allergy is the leading cause of anaphylaxis outside the hospital setting.

Epinephrine is the first-line treatment for anaphylaxis, which results when exposure to an allergen triggers a flood of chemicals that can send your body potentially into shock if not treated promptly. Anaphylaxis can occur within seconds or minutes, can worsen quickly, and can be deadly.

Once you’ve been diagnosed with a food allergy, your allergist will likely prescribe an epinephrine auto-injector and teach you how to use it. Check the expiration date of your auto-injector, note the expiration date on your calendar, and ask your pharmacy about reminder services for prescription renewals.

If possible, have two epinephrine auto-injectors available, especially if you are going to be far from emergency care, as the severe reaction may reoccur. Epinephrine should be used immediately if you experience severe symptoms such as shortness of breath, repetitive coughing, generalized hives, tightness in your throat, trouble breathing or swallowing, or a combination of symptoms from different body areas such as hives, rashes, or swelling on the skin coupled with vomiting, diarrhea, or abdominal pain.

Even if you are uncertain whether a reaction calls for epinephrine, you should use it, as the benefits of epinephrine far outweigh the risk.

Common side effects of epinephrine may include anxiety, restlessness, dizziness, and shakiness. If you have certain pre-existing conditions, you may be at a higher risk for adverse effects with epinephrine.

Your allergist will provide you with a written emergency treatment plan that outlines which medications should be given and when.

Once epinephrine has been administered, immediately call 911 and inform the dispatcher that epinephrine was given.

Other medications may be prescribed to treat symptoms of a food allergy, including antihistamines and albuterol, but it is important to note that there is no substitute for epinephrine: It is the only medication that can reverse the life-threatening symptoms of anaphylaxis. These other medications can be given after using epinephrine, and antihistamines alone may be given for milder allergic reactions per your food allergy action plan.

Managing Food Allergies in Children

Because fatal and near-fatal food allergy reactions, like other food allergy symptoms, can develop when a child is not with his or her family, make sure your child’s school, daycare, or other program has a written emergency action plan with instructions on preventing, recognizing, and managing these episodes in class and during activities such as sporting events and field trips.

If your child has been prescribed an auto-injector, be sure that you and those responsible for supervising your child understand how to use it. See an allergist for expert care and relief from meat allergy.

 

This page was reviewed and updated 5/8/2019.