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Aug 19, 2019 3:46 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Local Allergist Has Over 500 Patients With Alpha-Gal Meat Allergy From Tick Bites

Dr. Erin McGintee in her Southampton office. PRESS FILE
Aug 20, 2019 1:01 PM

Most longtime residents of the East End know at least one person with an alpha-gal allergy, a health issue that is becoming more prevalent locally as the number of lone star ticks, whose bite can cause the allergic condition, continues to rise.

Local allergist Dr. Erin McGintee diagnosed her first case in October 2010. Now, almost nine years later, she has 530 patients and is diagnosing more cases every day, she said, noticing a “slight uptick” in the number of cases in recent years.

Alpha-gal allergy is an allergy to red meat caused by a bite from a lone star tick. It is a delayed reaction that can take several hours before symptoms show and is treated like other food allergies. It can be life-threatening if the most severe reaction occurs, although fatalities from alpha-gal have not been reported, Dr. McGintee said.

If an affected person does not get bitten again by a lone star tick, the allergy can improve over time and even fully disappear.

“Alpha-gal allergy is an epidemic on the East End, and it most certainly is worse here than in other areas,” Dr. McGintee of ENT and Allergy Associates in Southampton, said in an email, noting that she has one of the largest patient clusters in the country.

“Having said that, the territory of the lone star tick is expanding, so I am seeing more and more cases coming from areas farther west in Suffolk County,” she continued in the email.

One of her most recent patients is Westhampton resident Diane Homan, who was diagnosed with alpha-gal just weeks ago.

Ms. Homan said she knew of others with the allergy, some family members, so when she woke up in the middle of the night covered in hives after eating a hamburger for dinner, she had a good guess of what was happening.

After two reactions just days apart, she mentally checked off the boxes: tick bite, red meat, allergic reaction. She scheduled an appointment with Dr. McGintee soon after.

Ms. Homan saw the tick on her arm while sitting at her office desk one day in June. She did not know how it got there, as she merely walked between her home, car and work so far that day.

“I thought I was taking preventative measures,” she said. “I don’t know where it came from. It’s not like I was hiking or anything like that.”

The lone star tick is the most common tick on the East End, Dr. McGintee said, and one of the most aggressive.

Among experts, lone star ticks are known as “hunters,” while the other common local tick, deer ticks, are known as “questers,” according to Rebecca Young, a nurse at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital who fields calls about tick-related inquiries daily.

“A lone star tick is attracted to your exhale and your vibration and will actually walk toward you,” Ms. Young said in an earlier interview, while deer ticks are “just on the grass waiting for you to go by, and then they hook on and get their blood meal from you.”

While a serious health concern, Dr. McGintee said she worries that doctors may be over-diagnosing the allergy. The growing awareness to the allergy is leading those who know they are bitten by the tick to get tested for the allergy — tests that commonly result in false positives.

“It is important to note that just because someone gets a bite from a lone star tick, that does not necessarily mean they will get the allergy,” the allergist explained via email. “I see several patients each week who had the test sent by their primary [doctor] even though they are eating meat totally fine, and then they get very confused when it comes back low positive. This is a food allergy.”

Some of Dr. McGintee’s patients travel far distances to visit her, with a few coming as far away as New Jersey, she said.

“It is important to know that, while I have the most experience and background in treating this allergy, there are other allergists west of here who are also amassing cases of their own,” she said.

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