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I remember how I absolutely loved playing outdoors as a kid. Evenings especially were a time where almost all of my hours were spent in the backyard. When my mom would call me inside to get ready for bed, I’d come in relaxed and happy and inevitably with an extra bug bite or two.
And, of course the most common bites were from those pests we’re all too familiar with — chiggers – the bane of late spring to early fall (or even later in the warm states like where I live) who love to lurk on your lawn.
Although we all are aware of the danger of an itchy, irritating rash the bugs bring, I recently discovered that there is a much bigger risk associated with those chigger bites — one I had never heard of…
Yup, it’s a big scientific term but it’s one you’re going to want to know — because it could be the link between a simple chigger bite and a deadly allergic reaction.
A build-up over time
First, let’s define what alpha-gal sensitization is so it’s easier to understand.
You see, alpha-gal is a rare allergic reaction to red meat. This allergy is a reaction to a carbohydrate molecule on meat from beef, pork, venison, etc. However, unlike most allergic reactions that happen within minutes, a reaction to alpha-gal occurs after three to six hours. And, the only cure is to avoid all meat.
Okay, I hear you…
You don’t have any problems when you eat meat so this doesn’t apply to you, right?
Actually, you could have eaten red meat all your life with no issues but all it takes is just one more bug bite and you’re in trouble.
How it works is this – when the bug takes a chomp out of you, it transmits a sugar molecule called alpha-gal into your body. For some people this is never a problem. While in others, it triggers an immune system reaction that causes a mild to severe allergic reaction to occur when they eat red meat.
No one knows why it happens with that one specific bite when it wasn’t a problem before or when it could happen to you.
Although doctors used to believe that the reaction could only happen after a tick bite, researchers at Wake Forest Baptist and the University of Virginia have recently disproved that theory and shown that an alpha-gal reaction can occur following chigger bites as well.
The allergic reactions can be so severe, you can even go into anaphylaxis — where your airways close up and you can’t breathe.
And, the only way to prevent the life-threatening reaction is to prevent the bite in the first place.
Avoiding tick and chigger bites
The best way to avoid being bitten by a tick or chigger which could cause an alpha-gal reaction is to wear long sleeves and pants when you’re in grassy areas. It can help to tuck your pants legs into the tops of boots and use repellent around your ankles, waistband, neck and cuffs.
Consider buying a DEET-free insect repellent (like one that uses Lemon Eucalyptus) in order to avoid toxic chemicals.
It’s also important to shower when you come inside, do a full-body tick check and wash your clothes in hot water to kill unwanted guests.
Tick and chigger bites can cause far more than pain and itching. They could result in a life-threatening alpha-gal allergic reaction and the only way to prevent it is to take steps to avoid those bug bites. Take steps each time you spend time in grassy areas to prevent these bites and you’ll be preventing alpha-gal sensitization as well.
- Alpha-gal syndrome — Mayo Clinic
- Allergists warn that chigger bites may cause allergic reaction to red meat — Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center