Have you been experiencing symptoms of fibromyalgia, anaphylaxis or psoriasis? Or perhaps you’ve been having migraines, stomach issues or low blood pressure? If you’ve been bitten by a tick or have any of these symptoms, you may want to get tested for Alpha-Gal.
The tick-borne allergy is spreading through Brown County as cases continue to rise.
“There are 62 people here in Brown County with Alpha-Gal that I know of,” said Laura Wert, County Commissioner’s HR Director. “There are eight people or their family members in this building alone.”
Alpha-Gal is a red meat allergy or tick-bite allergy to galactose alpha-1,3-galactose, which is a sugar present in beef, pork, lamb and the meat of most other mammals. According to Nurse Practitioner Rebecca Luenebrink at the Brown County Health and Wellness Center, the allergen is most commonly found through the bite of a lone star tick and takes up to at least 24 hours to transmit, but oftentimes more.
“Usually when someone comes to me they’ve been bitten by a tick and are asking what they could have,” said Luenebrink. “There’s so many tick diseases out there, they want to know what to do.”
However, Luenebrink said that many people come in and say their stomach is really bothering them, they’re nauseated, they’re getting rashes or having issues in the bathroom.
“One I hear a lot is arthritis symptoms,” said Luenebrink. “The allergy has been around awhile but it’s not studied a lot. Because I’ve had a lot of patients and friends who have had it, it’s kind of on my radar.”
Wert said she has had Alpha-Gal for 25 years and in the beginning, no one could figure out what was going on. She said about a year ago everything began to hurt. She was having ocular migraines, multiple hot flashes a day and was flushed all the time.
“I started getting to the point where I had anaphylaxis,” said Wert. “My tongue was swelling, my throat was closing up, I was having problems breathing and heart palpitations. I told myself I would just drink a lot of water, but then water hurt too.”
She went to Luenebrink and found out she had Alpha-Gal and had to begin changing her diet, cutting out all red meat and dairy products. However, the symptoms are different for each individual and can oftentimes not show up right away.
“My husband, son, and mother all have it,” said Christy Wrightsman. “The symptoms are different for each of them. That’s what’s difficult. My son and mother both have digestive issues, my husband has pain and aching of his joints and muscles, but doesn’t experience digestive issues.”
Luenebrink said individuals can get Alpha-Gal more than once and the symptoms can range anywhere from mild to severe allergic reactions where they may need an EpiPen on them at all times. On top of this, Brown County is a hotspot for ticks.
“In Brown County, there’s a lot of vegetation, woods and conditions conducive for ticks,” said Luenebrink. “And people in Brown County are outdoors all the time and that lifestyle is going to get more exposure.”
Luenebrink said there has been an increase in Alpha-Gal in Brown County with around 20 cases in the past year.
“I think so many people are probably dealing with ailments, pain, digestive issues, etc. and don’t even know about Alpha-Gal,” said Wrightsman. “It seems like every time I mention Alpha-Gal to someone there’s a response with names of several others in the county who also have it.”
Luenebrink said it’s unclear if the increase of Alpha-Gal in the county is due to having more awareness and an increase in testing or if there are more ticks and the virus is spreading. However, according to the Brown County Health Department, it’s not reportable and they don’t get any information about it unless patients let them know.
“It would be nice if it was tracked,” said Luenebrink. “Whether it’s the Health Department tracking it or some group tracking it to see if the numbers are going up, and if that’s due to more people knowing or an influx in ticks.”
Wrightsman said she is concerned that her family will receive another bite that could trigger stronger reactions. She said it seems impossible to prevent this from happening here in the county.
“My son and husband are constantly outside working, so I just don’t know how they’ll avoid another bite,” said Wrightsman. “I know there’s nothing we can do when they are out in the woods or the cross country course, but they were really thick last year around our home on Greasy Creek Road.”
Luenebrink said trying to create a tick-safe environment is key. She said it’s hard to reduce the tick population, but there are sprays available and other methods to reduce the environments ticks live in.
“Keep grass short, create tick barriers between your yard and grassy areas, wear appropriate clothing and use natural products to keep ticks off,” said Luenebrink. “Create an environment where ticks don’t want to be, and if you’re having symptoms get tested so that you can be aware you have this allergy.”