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Also called: Alpha-Gal Syndrome, Alpha-Gal Allergy, Tick Bite Meat Allergy, Mammalian Meat Allergy

What Is Red Meat Allergy?

Red meat allergy is a food allergy that can happen after a tick bite. Some ticks pass a tiny particle called alpha-gal into the blood. This can make a person’s immune system overreact to proteins in red meat and products made from mammals. The body thinks the proteins are harmful invaders, so it tries to fight them off. This can cause an allergic reaction.

What Can Trigger an Allergic Reaction to Red Meat?

An allergic reaction to red meat and products made from mammals can be triggered by eating or drinking things that have alpha-gal in them, such as:

  • beef, pork, lamb, goat, venison, or buffalo (these foods are sometimes in hot dog or burger form)
  • foods and drinks made from mammals, like gelatin, lard, cow’s milk, or other dairy products (including yogurt and ice cream)
  • carrageenan, an ingredient that comes from red seaweed and may be in things like toothpaste and powdered baby’s milk

Taking medicines coated with gelatin also may trigger an allergic reaction.

Some people with a red meat allergy must avoid meat products but are fine having other items that have less alpha-gal in them. Other people need to avoid anything that has even a small amount of alpha-gal.

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Red Meat Allergy?

When someone with a red meat allergy has red meat or something made from mammals, the body releases chemicals like histamine. This can cause symptoms to start about 2–6 hours later, like:

  • trouble breathing or coughing
  • itchy rash or hives
  • stomach pain, upset stomach, nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
  • swollen eyelids, lips, tongue, or throat
  • a drop in blood pressure that causes dizziness or fainting

Kids with the allergy might not always have a reaction when they eat red meat or something made from mammals. But if they do, it can differ from time to time. Some reactions are mild and affect just one part of the body, like hives on the skin. But the next reaction can be severe, called anaphylaxis (an-eh-fih-LAK-siss). This might start with some of the same symptoms as a less severe reaction but quickly can get worse. Kids may have trouble breathing or pass out. More than one part of the body might be affected. Anaphylaxis that isn't treated can be life-threatening.

How Is Red Meat Allergy Diagnosed?

If you think your child has a red meat allergy, see your doctor. They'll ask about symptoms and might do an exam and order blood tests. Your child might need to see an allergist, who can do more testing to check for an allergy and talk about what your child needs to avoid.

Allergic Reaction Instruction Sheet

How Is an Allergic Reaction to Red Meat Treated?

If someone has a red meat allergy, the allergist will likely prescribe medicine called an epinephrine auto-injector. It’s used when there’s a severe reaction and is easy to inject. Always keep two auto-injectors with your child. Some reactions will need both shots.

If your child starts having serious allergic symptoms, like trouble breathing, use the epinephrine auto-injector right away. Also give it right away if symptoms affect two parts of the body, like hives with vomiting. Then call 911 for an ambulance so your child can get treatment on the way to the emergency room. Medical care is needed because a second wave of serious symptoms can happen.

How Can Parents Help?

If your child has a red meat allergy:

  • Help your child avoid eating red meat. Talk with the doctor about what products your child should avoid.
  • Read food labels carefully. Ingredients can change.
  • Avoid cross-contamination. Some foods seem safe to eat based on their ingredient lists, but while being made they can have contact with (touch) alpha-gal products. This is called cross-contamination. Anyone preparing your child's food should wash their hands with soap and water before touching it. And your child should always wash their hands before eating.
  • Consider packing homemade lunches. This way you don’t have to wonder if a school lunch has something in it that could trigger an allergic reaction.
  • Be careful when dining out or ordering in. Ask the restaurant manager to confirm what’s in a dish. Don't order their food if the person seems uneasy with your request for a safe meal.
  • Ask your pharmacist to check whether any of your child’s medicines have gelatin coatings.
  • Follow an allergy action plan. Your allergist can give this to you. It helps you prepare for, recognize, and treat an allergic reaction. Share it with anyone who takes care of your child (such as relatives, daycare staff, and babysitters).

What Else Should I Know?

Sometimes a person can develop a red meat allergy without being bitten by a tick, but this isn’t common. Also, people with a red meat allergy can become more sensitive if they get more than one tick bite. To be safe, protect your family from ticks — wear long sleeves and pants when hiking, stay in the center of trails, and check for ticks when you come home.

Red meat allergy symptoms may ease over time or go away completely. So it might be possible for someone with the allergy to eat red meat and products from mammals again in a few years.

Learn more about managing food allergies at:

Medically reviewed by: Larissa Hirsch, MD
Date reviewed: June 2024