One Little Bite

Ixodes scapularis…

The tiny deer tick. I never thought much about the insect. It was a pest, something to search for on my body after a hike in the woods or tall grass. Sometimes it was stuck tight to my skin and needed to be extracted with a pair of tweezers and some alcohol. The nuisance, pinched between my index finger and thumb was then flushed down the commode in the bathroom. Recently I discovered that the tick is actually an arachnid. I should have cringed at the significance of this information. I hate spiders. Now I hate ticks.

I’d heard of Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. These maladies have symptoms to look for like a bull’s eye around the bite, muscle or joint pain, fever, chills, fatigue and headache. Never in my life did I think a tick bite would lead to an allergy to one of my favorite foods.

Four years ago I was out of town at a baseball tournament with my eldest son. After one of his games, we went to a nationally known steakhouse for dinner.  Ben ordered a huge steak for himself, and his grandmother and I split a meal.  After midnight, I woke with stomach cramps, walked into the bathroom of the hotel, and fainted behind a locked door.  My mother heard me fall, banged on the door until I regained consciousness and then she coaxed me to open the door. I had severe nausea and vomiting.  We thought it might be food poisoning at first, but she was not ill. We had eaten the same foods. We then assumed I had been hit by some sort of bug. Little did I know.

Three months later, my youngest son and I went to a local Mexican restaurant before attending a little league game. Ryan ordered a burrito while I chose the taco meal.  At eleven o’clock that same evening, I fainted in the hallway outside my bedroom.  Ryan heard the fall and came to investigate the noise. He found me, having regained consciousness, but vomiting violently. I went to the doctor the next day and he seemed to think that I had a case of food poisoning.

The third instance occurred after eating out at one of our favorite local burger joints.  I began to suspect that I was ingesting some type of spice or additive that restaurants use to season food. Each time the fainting and vomiting occurred I had eaten out. I contacted each restaurant to obtain a list of the ingredients in the recipes of the meals I’d had.

My doctor considered low blood pressure, a heart condition, and after those tests proved me to be within normal ranges, he sent me to an allergist. They took blood and did skin tests. The skin test showed a mild allergic reaction to hay, grass, dust and cat dander. The blood test gave me the answer I was looking for.

I received the call on my cell while I was sitting in the drive through at the local McDonald’s. I loved Big Macs.  “I’m allergic to beef?’ I asked in disbelief. “As in cow?”

The doctor confirmed it was indeed a beef allergy, and I best not eat any more of it. How could I be allergic to beef?  I’d eaten beef my whole life. It had to be something else, and furthermore, the symptoms didn’t occur every time I ate beef. I could count three other times that week that I’d had beef and didn’t faint or vomit. The instances of symptoms were coming more frequently though, and when they did happen, they were also more severe.

I was called back to the doctor’s office and given instructions on the use of an epi-pen, a needle one can use to inject a shot of epinephrine in the event of an allergy attack.  I looked at the device and then at the doctor. I felt silly. “An allergy is just an inconvenience, right?” I asked him. “Something that makes you sneeze or swell up and itch. A little over-the-counter antihistamine takes care of it, right?”

“Your symptoms are pretty severe,” the doctor said. “When you faint, have stomach cramps, nausea, and vomiting, your body is exhibiting signs of anaphylaxis. This allergy could kill you.”

It still didn’t feel life threatening to me.

Then on a Tuesday evening, after a delicious dinner at our favorite family style restaurant, I stopped breathing. I was getting ready for bed when the phone rang. I had a nice conversation with my aunt and as I went to hang up the phone, I felt a bit light headed. I remember thinking; I need to call for Bruce, my husband, because I felt really strange.  When I came to, members of the volunteer rescue squad were huddled around me as I heaved violently. My body itched from the top of my head to the bottoms of my feet. Hives covered me.

Bruce had found me in the kitchen chair, not breathing.  Ryan called 911 while my husband followed the dispatcher’s instructions to get me breathing again. The ambulance crew arrived and administered the antidote. I spent the night in the emergency room.  I had eaten potatoes that had been fried on the same grill as beef. The juices from the beef mingled with the potatoes and four hours later, my body reacted. The allergy was no longer a silly inconvenience.

I now understood the significance of the beef allergy, but had no idea how I had developed it after years of eating beef with no problem at all.

One day I received a phone call from a friend. She had heard a story on National Public Radio about a study that was being conducted at the University of Virginia concerning people developing beef allergies from the bite of a tick.

I pulled the story up on the computer and found that I presented with every symptom listed. I had found my answer.

Doctors believe that there is a bacteria in the tick’s saliva that causes the body to react to the sugars in beef as allergens. Some people develop allergies to pork, lamb and other mammals as well as to beef.  What is unusual about this allergy is that the reaction occurs four to six hours after the ingestion of the beef, when the sugar from the beef reaches the bloodstream. Because the reaction is not immediate as with other allergies, people don’t associate the response with eating the meat.

This allergy is becoming more prevalent in regions where deer and deer ticks are common. The study is still being conducted by the University of Virginia.

Link to study:

http://corporate.uvahealth.com/news-room/archives/study-describes-delayed-anaphylaxis-a-new-notion-in-diagnosing-food-allergies

 

One Little Bite © 2011 M Dawn Thacker. Read M Dawn’s latest on Now.readthisplease.com Image courtesy of the US Dept. of Agriculture.

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