One bite from this tick could ruin red meat for the rest of your life

  • A single bite from a lone star tick could cause hives, shortness of breath, or even death.
  • It’s not something they were born with, it’s something their body was taught to reject, by an uninvited little wilderness hitchhiker.
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Following is a transcript of the video.

Imagine that you’re a red-blooded carnivore. You love burgers, steak, pork chops, bacon. But one day, out of nowhere, red meat starts to make you physically sick to the stomach. It sounds like science fiction, but it’s real, and it’s spreading.

It’s spreading to people like Amy.

Amy Pearl: My name is Amy Pearl, and I’m a producer for WNYC.

She has what is called a mammalian meat allergy.

Amy Pearl: I have a tendency to not mention it at restaurants, because I feel like if you say to a server, I’m allergic to meat, they’re gonna be like, I’m spitting in your food.

Any meat that came from a cow, a pig, or a lamb, will make Amy sick. Very, very sick.

Amy Pearl: Like I just had hives on my hands and my feet, and like all over my torso. I was nauseous, and I felt like I was fainting, I felt like the world was ending, I felt like I was gonna pass out and I couldn’t really breathe.

Thousands of Americans are suffering like Amy, but until 2009, this sort of allergy went undiagnosed.

Amy Pearl: I think I made an appointment with my regular physician, but he immediately was like, there’s no such thing as a meat allergy, has to be something else.

That changed with the cancer drug, Cetuximab. In a clinical trial, one in four patients developed severe allergic reactions to the drug. Some even died.

Naturally, Cetuximab was investigated. University of Virginia’s allergy department focused on one specific part of the drug. The key ingredient in Cetuximab is a specific carbohydrate that all non-primate mammals carry in their cell walls and tissues, Galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose, or, if you’re pressed for time, alpha-gal.

Dogs have it, cats have it, and the mice cells involved in the production of Cetuximab have alpha-gal. The team discovered that those who had reactions were from only certain areas of the US, the southeast. The locations of the cases aligned almost perfectly with the range of a specific type of tick, the lone star tick.

Dr. Scott Commins is an allergist, and was working with the University at the time.

Scott Commins: Over 90 to 93% of our patients that developed allergic reactions to red meat and test positive by blood test will have a history of tick bites.

Amy Pearl: The thing I Googled was “sudden meat allergy.” I found an article that said there was some man in Florida, had gone into anaphylactic shock from eating meat after a tick bite. And I was like, “I had a tick bite!” I mean, I often have a tick bite. I’d just taken a tick off me.

One of the leading researchers, Dr. Thomas Platts-Mills, went so far to use himself in an unofficial experiment, taking a hike through a nest of larval ticks. It earned him a nice case of red meat allergy.

There’s still a lot we don’t know about how this meat allergy works, but here is the leading theory. Ticks don’t have alpha-gal naturally, but they could be carrying it if they fed off a mammal, like a deer or a dog. If a tick then bites you, it trades some of your delicious blood for its saliva, which is a cocktail of nasty things. An enzyme in that saliva tells your body that there’s a variety of dangerous threats, and your immune system bans everything in that saliva from entering the body, including alpha-gal, which is also in every burger, steak, and bacon strip. So the next time you eat one of those, your body treats the carbohydrate like an intruder, and hits the panic button.

This is happening in the bodies of an estimated 5,000 Americans. What’s worse is that the range of the lone star tick is growing.

Scott: Their range is spreading into the Ohio River Valley and now up into Minnesota. We also know places where this alpha-gal red meat allergy exists, but they don’t have lone star ticks at all. And this would be southern Sweden, for example, there’s parts of Europe, Australia, and now even South Africa. So clearly other tick species can do this as well.

University of Virginia’s researchers have also linked the alpha-gal allergies with a higher risk of heart disease.

Scott Commins: This allergy seems as though it will often go away over time, but the problem has been that any additional tick bites seem to cause the allergy to return. And these are often patients who like to be outside.

Amy Pearl: I know that my numbers have gone down, because I’ve been retested a couple of times, but they’re still 10, 20 times what they should be.

Dr. Commins continues to work towards an immediate cure to mammalian meat allergy. In the meantime, the number of cases are rising.

Scott Commins: So what we’ve been trying to do is work on a vaccine related to tick saliva, in hopes that we can prevent the allergic response from continuing, or recurring, with additional tick bites.

If you’ve been bitten by ticks recently, be sure to get tested. If you haven’t, learn how to explore the woods safely.

Scott Commins: you may want to consider pre-treating your skin or clothing with DEET or Permethrin, respectively.

Amy Pearl: People are so freaked out about ticks, it’s not that bad. They’re much easier to see than you think.

Learn how to do a tick check after spending time in the wilderness. And if you value a juicy steak over a walk in nature, then maybe stay out of the woods.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This video was originally published in August 2018.

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How to know if you’re allergic to the COVID-19 vaccines by Moderna, Pfizer, or J&J

children covid-19 vaccine
  • Most people with severe allergies will not react to a COVID-19 vaccination.
  • None of the shots from Moderna, Pfizer, and J&J contain preservatives. They have no eggs or latex in them.
  • But they do include some other fatty substances, which, in rare cases, people can react to.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

More than 44 million people across the US have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 – that’s about 13% of the country.

Just a very small fraction of those people, about 0.00045%, have had an allergic reaction. Their symptoms ranged from localized hives to wheezing or even life-threatening anaphylaxis.

“Fortunately, I’m not aware of anybody actually dying from getting the vaccine,” Dr. Sanjeev Jain, a board-certified allergist, immunologist, and CEO of Columbia Allergy, told Insider.

Culprits at work in the three authorized vaccines, allergy-wise, seem to stem from a couple of ingredients: polyethylene glycol (PEG), and polysorbate. These are common additives, which help many products better maintain their moisture and stick together in a uniform way.

In the drug industry, these substances can be used to deliver fragile vaccines and medications in convenient formulations. They’re also used in many other ways to make things run smoother, and can be found in everything from processed foods to colonoscopy prep solutions and face creams.

PEG and polysorbate are key ingredients in the COVID-19 vaccines authorized for use in the US (both Pfizer and Moderna’s shots include PEG, while Johnson & Johnson’s shot has polysorbate in it).

But Dr. Jain says, even if you do have an allergy to one of those vaccine ingredients, there are still ways to get vaccinated safely. In fact, if you’ve ever used a laxative, you may already have a pretty good indication of your risk.

What are the reactive ingredients in the COVID-19 vaccines by Pfizer, Moderna, and J&J?

While some people may want to pore over the ingredients listed in each vaccine, it’s important for people with severe allergies to also have a basic understanding of what’s not in any of these vaccines.

There are no preservatives, no eggs, and no latex. The ingredients to focus on are PEG and polysorbate.

Pfizer vial
Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines have PEG inside, while J&J’s has polysorbate.

Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines are extremely similar and both contain PEG.

The shots are messenger RNA-based (mRNA), and include a combination of fats, salts, sugar and acids, to carry the vaccine’s critical genetic instruction manuals into the body, to teach it to fight off the coronavirus. Polyethylene glycol (PEG) is one of the fatty substances (or, lipids) included in both vaccines to help stabilize and package the key ingredients.

J&J’s shot is different.

It works by injecting viral DNA into a person’s arm, not mRNA. Instead of PEG, it has polysorbate in it.

But that doesn’t mean J&J’s vaccine is necessarily a better option for people with severe PEG allergies. The CDC stresses there is “cross-reactive hypersensitivity” between PEG and polysorbate, meaning that someone who’s allergic to one substance could also react to the other.

“Polysorbate is a very similar chemical to polyethylene glycol,” Jain said. “So, there is a good chance that if somebody is allergic to polyethylene glycol, they’re going to be allergic to polysorbate as well.”

People with PEG allergies may tolerate J&J’s shot a little better

afghanistan covid-19 vaccine
An Afghan health worker receives a dose of COVID-19 vaccine at a medical center in Herat, Afghanistan, March 17, 2021.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is not recommending that anyone with allergies avoid COVID-19 vaccination, categorically.

But, the CDC says that you should avoid any particular vaccine that contains an ingredient you are allergic to (such as PEG or polysorbate).

That’s why Pat Wyman, CEO of (a website focused on teaching people how to improve their learning and recall skills) waited until J&J’s shot was available at her local pharmacy in order to get vaccinated.

Wyman is allergic to PEG, and even a little bit of it included in a face cream can give her a headache.

“I’ve had so many allergic reactions to medications,” she told Insider, adding that she always carries around two EpiPens in her purse, just in case of an attack.

Her doctor recommended that she find a place offering J&J’s single-dose vaccine, and Wyman did, at her local pharmacy, on March 10.

“We still have to exercise caution, but it makes me happier that I did it,” she said of being vaccinated.

After vaccination, Wyman did have some severe vaccine side effects, including a high fever, chills, and a headache that began “two seconds” after vaccination she said, and lasted for five days. She thinks that’s probably related to the vaccine’s polysorbate component.

Still, as an immunocompromised person, she knows the risk of catching COVID-19 far overshadows that “temporary discomfort” of getting vaccinated.

“I would do it again in a heartbeat, because it is so important for me to feel safer in general,” she said. “More than that, I want to be able to spend quality time with my family and be able to hug my children, and my grandchildren, and travel!”

Allergists are using laxatives to find out if patients have sensitivity to the COVID-19 vaccines

china covid-19 vaccine
A man receives the COVID-19 vaccine at a gymnasium on March 18, 2021 in Beijing, China.

There are ways to find out if you might have an allergic reaction to a COVID-19 vaccine beforehand.

One good indication that you may be at risk, Jain said, is if you’ve already reacted to a previous vaccination (like the flu vaccine). If that’s the case, consult an allergist before you get vaccinated.

If you are severely allergic to a particular vaccine’s ingredients, your doctor may still be able to recommend a treatment that will make it safe to take the vaccine, though it is time-intensive.

“What a lot of allergists are doing now is systematically testing people for possible polyethylene glycol allergy,” Jain said.

One way to do that in relative safety is for an allergist to administer their patient a bit of Miralax, a laxative that includes PEG. Then, the patient might start to feel nauseous or get a headache – red flags that they probably are sensitive to PEG.

After that screening, those people may choose to undergo desensitization. Jain’s practice has desensitized several people to PEG after they had a reaction to their first dose of Pfizer or Moderna’s vaccines.

The desensitization process involves two six-hour sessions, where patients are administered PEG in tiny, incremental doses, using an IV. Dr. Jain starts with a dose of .1 mg of PEG and increases the dosage every 20 minutes.

Patients must get their second dose of mRNA vaccine within 24 hours of their second IV session, as PEG stays in the body for a full day, and patients won’t have a reaction during that time.

What to do before your vaccine appointment if you’re nervous about having a reaction

FILE - In this July 8, 2016, file photo, a pharmacist holds a package of EpiPens epinephrine auto-injector, a Mylan product, in Sacramento, Calif. On Tuesday, March 24, 2020, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned the public about malfunctions involving some EpiPens, the emergency injectors for severe allergic reactions. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)
A package of EpiPens.

Before going in for vaccination, people who are concerned about their potential for allergic reaction to COVID-19 vaccines may choose to take an antihistamine, like Zyrtec or Benadryl. Taking an antihistamine if you have mild symptoms after the shot is also fine, Jain said (though, if you’re having any trouble breathing, seek clinical care).

Vaccination sites are also required to have epinephrine for allergic reactions on hand, but talk to your vaccinator to confirm that’s the case, and let them know more about your specific allergy history. Then, make sure to stick around for a full 30 minute observation period after vaccination.

Take comfort when you leave the vaccine site then, knowing that almost all allergic reactions occur in the 15 minutes after vaccine administration.

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