News of the spread of the lone star tick in Minnesota hit home hard for Sue Comstock and Robin Scholer, who are among a growing number of people to develop red meat allergies after being bitten by the bug.
The pair contacted GoMN after we reported the tick, normally found in the southern U.S., has been reportedly spreading in the north of the state. The tick puts residents and visitors at risk of a bite that could condemn them to a life without bacon, burgers and steaks.
The tick passes on an allergy to the alpha-gal carbohydrate indiscriminately (as in, anyone can contract this allergy), with the sugar commonly found in red meat.
What started out as only a few cases nationally has spread to several thousands, with this Wired.com feature highlighting Duluth as one of the lone star tick "hotspots."
Sue Comstock and Robin Scholer spoke with GoMN about their experiences with the allergy.
"I went into anaphylactic shock and almost died."
Comstock, who lives in northern Minnesota, says she found out she had the alpha-gal allergy in 2012, but only after several months of descents into anaphylactic shock that almost killed her.
Her first seizure was in August of that year and it wasn't until November that she was diagnosed. During that time she had seven more visits to the emergency room and countless uses of EpiPens.
Now she's particularly sensitive to anything "mammalian," which doesn't just include meat but also meat-based products such as broth and brown gravy mix.
What's more, she's also allergic to the enzyme pectin, which is found in alcohols and foods. Among them: apples, gooseberries, plums, pears and other citrus fruits. Plus, she's not allowed to get a shingles shot because it contains an ingredient from pigs.
"This allergy definitely changed my life and the lives of everyone around me," she told GoMN. "I make sure I read all labels on everything I purchase to make sure it has no meat products in.
"It's almost impossible to go out to eat because there is [so] much cross contamination."
Although the fact the tick is spreading could mean more victims, she is glad the allergy is finally becoming part of the national conversation because of the relative lack of awareness right now.
"I am hoping that this allergy gets more well known to people, so when you tell them about it, it doesn't take forever to explain," Comstock said.
Diagnosis followed several years of tests
Golden Valley resident Robin Scholer believes she picked up the tick bite while visiting her cousin's ranch in Giddings, Texas, where the tick is particularly prevalent.
She said "for years" she would feel food sticking in her throat, saying she would "just drown it in water and shove it down."
Initially, she tested positive for eosinophilic esophagitis, an inflammation that can cause the narrowing of the esophagus, and was surprised when medics suggested a food allergy was to blame considering she'd never had food allergies before.
Ahead of her first appointment with an allergist, she had a steak and said she could feel an anaphylactic response after just two bites.
"He [the allergist] seemed doubtful when I told him my steak caused an allergic reaction and couldn't believe I had only put salt and pepper on it," she said.
A test of 30 foods followed and when the results were in a week later, it turns out Robin was right: she was allergic to beef and pork.
"He didn't mention alpha-gal and I don't think either of us knew what it was. I had four other foods to which I was allergic so this was just one of them," she said.
It was only when she read about alpha-gal last year that she realized what might be causing her symptoms and where she might have picked it up from, even though she admits she still finds it hard to believe it's the cause.
"I keep waiting for them to come up with something else," she says, noting her symptoms are milder than other people who suffer from it.
"When the mood strikes me, I can still have a piece of prime rib as long as I take Pepcid AC, as my symptom is indigestion. I only had the anaphylactic reaction once."
You can find more information about red meat allergies here, courtesy of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.