By Kendra Findley with Springfield-Greene County Health
With summer at its peak and fall just around the corner, nature enthusiasts and outdoor adventurers alike eagerly embrace the various outdoor amenities that the Ozarks has to offer. Whether it’s an afternoon hike, a camping trip with friends, or a cozy bonfire under the stars, these seasonal activities offer a perfect escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. However, amidst the excitement, it’s important to be aware of potential health risks, including conditions like Alpha-Gal Syndrome, and take preventive measures to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience.
Understanding Alpha-Gal Syndrome:
Alpha-Gal Syndrome, also known as AGS, is a fascinating yet perplexing health condition. It is an allergy to a carbohydrate known as alpha-gal, which is found in red meat, including beef, pork, and lamb. Unlike traditional allergies that result from proteins, AGS stems from a sugar molecule. The primary cause of this allergy is the bite of the lone star tick. It is estimated that a tick must be attached to you for 24 to 50 hours in order to transmit the disease, and the risk of contracting AGS following a tick bite is between 1 and 3%. While the risk might be low, it is important to take precautions.
After being bitten by a lone star tick, some individuals may develop antibodies against the alpha-gal protein, leading to an immune response whenever they consume red meat. This happens because the tick picks up the protein when it feeds on mammals and transmits it when it in its saliva when it bites you. It can take approximately three months for symptoms of AGS to start. After this time has passed, symptoms of AGS usually appear a few hours after eating the meat and can range from mild to severe. Common symptoms include hives, itching, swelling, gastrointestinal distress, and in more severe cases, anaphylaxis — a life-threatening allergic reaction. It is estimated that cases of AGS are 32% higher in the Midwest than in other areas of the United States.
Preventing Alpha-Gal Syndrome While Enjoying the Outdoors:
- Tick Avoidance: The most effective way to prevent Alpha-Gal Syndrome is to avoid tick bites. When spending time outdoors, especially in wooded or grassy areas, wear long sleeves, pants tucked into socks, and closed-toe shoes. Applying a tick repellent to exposed skin and treating clothing with permethrin can also provide an extra layer of protection.
- Tick Checks: Perform thorough tick checks on yourself, your family, and pets after outdoor activities. Ticks can be tiny and easily missed, so paying attention to hidden areas like the scalp, behind the ears, and under the arms is crucial.
- Dietary Adjustments: If you suspect you may have been exposed to tick bites, it’s wise to reduce or avoid consumption of red meat for a while. This can help mitigate the chances of developing the allergy. Choose alternative sources of protein, such as poultry, fish, and plant-based options.
- Medical Consultation: If you experience any symptoms that suggest an allergic reaction after consuming red meat, seek medical attention promptly. A healthcare professional can diagnose Alpha-Gal Syndrome and provide guidance on managing the condition.
- Education: Educate yourself and others about tick-borne illnesses and the areas where lone star ticks are prevalent. Awareness goes a long way in preventing tick bites and reducing the risk of Alpha-Gal Syndrome.
Balancing Safety and Outdoor Enjoyment:
While the threat of Alpha-Gal Syndrome may create some caution, it’s important to remember that millions of people safely enjoy outdoor activities every year. By taking preventive measures and staying informed, you can minimize the risk of tick bites and continue to relish the pleasures of nature without worry.
This summer and fall, enjoy the changing of the seasons by engaging in outdoor adventures, exploring nature’s wonders, and making cherished memories. By staying vigilant, practicing tick avoidance, and maintaining a balanced diet, you can savor the beauty of the great outdoors while safeguarding your health and well-being. After all, there’s no better feeling than basking in the sun’s warmth or relishing the crisp air of fall, knowing you’ve taken the necessary steps to ensure a safe and delightful experience.