Special Report: Tick bites causing deadly reactions

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - Danger lurks outside your door. It's tiny, illusive and chances are you won't notice when it strikes.

But when this tiny pest does bite -- it can change your life forever, leaving you susceptible to what can be a deadly reaction.

"I was actually visiting Myrtle Beach. We went out to eat and I had shrimp. During the night I broke out in hives, they got bigger," said Susan Morrison, allergy sufferer.

Morrison cut shell fish out of her diet. But the allergic reactions kept coming.

"All at once my throat started closing and I couldn't swallow. It was like you were going to pass out right there," she said. "They did all the tests and said you have no allergic reaction to seafood or shellfish."

Then, the allergist tested Susan for something she wasn't expecting: beef. Sure enough, she had a reaction.

"I first I thought, this is just too bizarre," she said.

Bizarre yes, but it's what doctors now think caused her to be allergic to beef that is baffling medical minds.

"When they first did the testing the nurse asked, 'have you noticed a bad tick bite?' I said, 'Oh my goodness, yes!,'" Morrison said.

This sudden beef allergy is turning into a big problem in the southeast -- from Susan's home in Virginia, to Tennessee, North Carolina, Arkansas and even Missouri.

A recent study by the University of Virginia found one common denominator: a tick bite.

"It's probably going to change the way allergists look at allergies -- particularly to foods," said Dr. Mark Schecker, an allergist.

Here's how allergists think it works: "Alpha-gal" is a carbohydrate found in meat. Researchers believe the tick bite somehow forces the person's body to develop anti-bodies to the alpha-gal.

Once you eat meat, the anti-body attacks, causing your allergic reaction.

"It's changed my life," Morrison said. "Have to really worry about contamination if you go to a restaurant. Have to ask if they have a separate grill for fish and beef."

Susan now carries her own emergency kit, including an epipen and benadryl.

The good thing is, this is a totally treatable allergy.

While Morrison may miss a hamburger on occasion, she says it's a small price to pay.

"It doesn't matter to me," Morrison said. "You do what you have to do to be healthy."

As for why it's hitting certain states, especially in the Southeast, that's still unknown.

Researchers suggest it may have something to do with climate. Blood samples from Boston and Scandinavia almost never reveal the alpha-gal antibodies. But samples from Virginia, North Carolina and other parts of the South do.

Dr. Shecker suspects this is just the beginning of diagnosed cases, as more people learn about this tick allergy.

Copyright 2010 WWBT NBC12. All rights reserved.

Related Stories