Meat Allergy Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis and Treatment

Food allergies are relatively common, affecting up to 8% of children and 2% of adults. Although people may be allergic to beef, pork, lamb, game, or poultry, meat allergies are less common than other types of food allergies.

Part of the reason for this is that many proteins in meat can trigger allergies (called allergen) when the meat is cooked, this becomes less likely. While there is no known cure for meat allergy, it is generally considered rare and symptoms subside over time.

This article looks at the symptoms of a meat allergy and explains which meats are most commonly associated with allergies (and why). It also outlines treatment options for meat allergies, including those used to treat allergy emergencies.

meat allergy symptoms

With a true meat allergy, the body’s immune system overreacts whenever meat is consumed.

The body releases a chemical called histamine into the bloodstream. Histamine can trigger immediate and sometimes profound effects, causing blood vessels to dilate and mucus-producing cells to activate.

This can lead to a range of symptoms affecting the skin, digestive tract, and respiratory tract, including:

  • rash
  • hives (hives)
  • Tissue swelling throughout the body (Angioedema)
  • headache
  • stomach cramps
  • diarrhea
  • nausea or vomiting
  • sneeze
  • runny or stuffy nose
  • swollen, watery eyes
  • shortness of breath
  • heart rate too fast

Reactions range from mild to severe. Depending on your sensitivity to a specific meat allergen, symptoms may develop rapidly or last for hours.

Those that appear quickly are often serious and, in rare cases, may cause a life-threatening systemic reaction called allergic reaction. If not treated immediately, allergic reactions can cause fainting, coma, shock, heart or respiratory failure, and even death.

In meat allergies, especially red meat allergies, delayed reactions can be severe. With almost all other types of food allergies, delayed reactions are usually manageable. With a red meat allergy, an allergic reaction may occur hours after eating the meat.

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A meat allergy can cause the same symptoms as any food allergy, including rashes, breathing problems, diarrhea, vomiting, and stomach cramps. In rare cases, it can cause a potentially life-threatening systemic allergy called anaphylaxis.

reason

Meat allergies can develop at any stage of life, and some people are at greater risk, including those with specific blood types, previous infections, tick bites, eczema, or other food allergies.

As with all allergies, the root cause of a meat allergy is unknown. That being said, scientists have gained a better understanding of the key factors that trigger red meat allergies and poultry allergies, respectively.

Red meat allergy

For beef, lamb, and similar meats, the allergen in question is a specific sugar molecule — alpha-gal sugar — found in nearly all mammals except humans.

(Note that this molecule is not a source of sugar commonly found in cookies, cakes, and other sweet treats, and if you find you are allergic to alpha-gal, you don’t need to read labels to avoid sugar specifically.)

Red meat allergy, also known as mammalian meat allergy (MMA) or alpha-gal allergy, is most common in people with blood type A or O.

According to the researchers, this is because the B antigens in the AB or B blood group are most similar to the allergens that trigger meat allergies, providing these individuals with innate protection. In fact, people with blood types B or AB are five times less likely to be diagnosed with a red meat allergy.

While blood type A or O may increase a person’s risk of a true meat allergy, research suggests that certain infections or co-existing allergies may trigger a symptomatic reaction or amplify its effects.

One of the most common triggers is the bite of the lone star tick (named for the single white mark on its back). It is mostly found in the southern and central United States, although its range is expanding.

The lone star tick (also known as the turkey tick or northeastern water tick) feeds on the blood of mammals whose meat contains alpha-gal sugars. When a tick feeds on a human, it introduces these sugars into the bloodstream, sensitizing the person to alpha-gal.

While beef is most commonly associated with this effect, any other meat protein can also trigger a response.

pork allergy

Pork may fall into the red meat allergy category. But it’s also possible that someone will have a cross-reaction to pork rather than an actual allergy.

In other words, it’s not the pork that the body responds to. The stuff in it is similar to the substance you’re allergic to. In the case of pork, it’s usually a cat allergen.

The reaction, known as pig-feline syndrome, is triggered by the similar molecular structure of feline and pork albumin, a protein.

While people allergic to pork are often allergic to cats, this is not the case. Therefore, cat allergies are considered true allergies, while pork allergies are cross-reactive.

poultry allergy

Allergic reactions to poultry are less common than allergic reactions to red meat. If an allergy does occur, it’s usually the result of undercooked chicken, turkey, or other wild or farmed poultry.

Some people with known egg allergies also suffer from a cross-reactive disorder called bird-egg syndrome, in which exposure to down can cause respiratory symptoms. Interestingly, this condition has been linked to egg allergies, but not the chickens themselves.

True poultry allergies are most common in teens and young adults, although the first signs may appear before school age. People with poultry allergies are often allergic to fish, but may also be allergic to shrimp. For these individuals, coexisting egg allergies are rare and the risk of anaphylaxis is low.

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Red meat allergy is caused by a reaction to an allergen called alpha gal sugar and is most common in people with blood type A or O. Pork or poultry allergies are often the result of cross-reactive allergies to cats or eggs, respectively.

diagnosis

A meat allergy is usually suspected if you experience symptoms when you eat certain types of meat.

To confirm your suspicions, you will need to see a specialist called an allergist who can perform a series of common allergy tests. These include:

  • Allergy blood tests that detect antibodies, called IgE (IgE), for different types of meat or poultry
  • A skin prick test where a small amount of meat protein is placed under the skin to see if anything triggers a skin reaction
  • Eliminate the diet to remove suspected meat allergens from the diet and see if symptoms improve

Less commonly, an oral challenge can be used. This is when someone eats meat to see if it triggers a reaction. This should only be done under the guidance of a board-certified allergist.

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Meat allergies can be diagnosed by experts called allergists and may involve blood antibody tests, skin prick tests, elimination diets, or oral challenges.

treat

The best treatment for a meat allergy is to avoid specific meats or meat by-products. This includes checking all food labels (especially sausages, bolognese and other mixed meat products) and restaurant ingredients when eating out.

If meat is a major staple of your diet, you should consider meeting with a nutritionist or healthcare provider who can help you find alternative protein sources while making sure you meet your daily nutritional needs.

If you accidentally eat the meat in question and have a simple reaction, over-the-counter antihistamines often help ease the rash. People with asthma often require rescue inhalers to relieve respiratory distress.

If you have experienced a severe reaction in the past or are at risk of an allergic reaction, you will need to bring your EpiPen to inject yourself epinephrine (Epinephrine) in an emergency.

If epinephrine is given at home, emergency care is usually recommended as soon as additional medication is needed.

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The best way to deal with a meat allergy is to avoid the meat in question. Oral antihistamines or rescue inhalers may be required if meat is eaten accidentally. People at risk of anaphylaxis need to carry an epinephrine auto-injector (EpiPen) in case of an emergency.

Learn how to use EpiPen if you have allergies

generalize

Meat allergy is an uncommon food allergy, mainly because the allergens in meat tend to be neutralized during cooking. Even so, meat allergies do happen and can cause exactly the same symptoms as any other food allergy.

Red meat allergy is the most common “true” meat allergy and mainly affects people with blood type A or O. The more common causes of pork and poultry allergies are cross-reactive allergies to cats and eggs, respectively.

Avoiding trigger foods is the best way to deal with any food allergy, and meat allergies are no exception. In the event of accidental exposure, oral antihistamines, rescue inhalers, or epinephrine auto-injectors (EpiPen) may be required.

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Some scientists suspect that meat allergies are far more common than assumed, and some cases of anaphylaxis are thought to be caused by other, more common causes, such as nut allergies or shellfish allergies.

For this reason, be sure to speak with your healthcare provider if allergy symptoms persist despite excluding the putative food allergen. This is especially true in areas where the lone star tick is endemic. These include Midwestern states where wild turkeys are common, and wooded areas of Eastern states where whitetail deer thrive.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How common are meat allergies?

    Meat allergies are relatively uncommon, but likely because many diagnoses are missed. The numbers have been increasing in recent years as accurate tests and diagnoses become more accessible.

  • How long does it take for a meat allergy to be diagnosed?

    Certain allergy tests can be performed very quickly, such as a skin prick test, which can be completed and provide results in about 15 minutes. Other diagnostics take longer: Results of blood tests that look for certain antibodies are usually available in about a week. Trials of elimination diets can take weeks or months.

  • Is a skin prick allergy test painful?

    Skin prick allergy tests may cause some brief discomfort, but are usually painless and non-bleeding.