Beef allergies affect an estimated 3 percent to 6.5 percent of children, including one of every five children allergic to cow milk, according to a 2001 report from the Internet Symposium on Food Allergen's Matthew Belser and colleagues. Most children outgrow their allergies within three years. Adult-onset beef allergy, however, may be a permanent condition. If you develop hives or breathing problems several hours after eating beef, an allergy could be the culprit.
Beef, like all meat, is a high-protein food. It's not, however, 100-percent protein. Beef contains the carbohydrate galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose, commonly known as alpha-gal. A study reported in the February 2009 issue of the "Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology" reported 24 patients with delayed allergic reactions to alpha-gal from beef and other mammal-based meats. The participants experienced hives or respiratory distress within three to six hours after consuming beef, lamb or pork. The study suggests that allergic reactions to alpha-gal antibodies could be fatal.
Hives, or urticaria, are a common allergic response to beef. Skin itchiness in response to the histamines your body release during an allergic reaction is the first sign of the condition. Hives sit on the skin's surface as red, clearly defined welts. They often spread into large, inflamed areas. Hives subside on their own, sometimes for hours, only to reappear. Diphenhydramine, ceterizine or loratodine antihistamines effectively control hives.
Angioedema, or angioneurotica edema, produces subsurface skin swelling. This allergic reaction to beef occurs most often on the face, especially in the eye and lip area. It also appears as spreading or linear inflammation of the throat, hands and feet. The swollen welts cause painful pressure, often without itching. Symptoms accompanying include abdominal or respiratory distress and swelling, or chemosis, of the inner eyelid or eye surface tissues. Chemosis can make closing the eyes impossible. Treatments for angioedema include antihistamines, cortisone-bases anti-inflammatories and the acid reflux medication ramitidine. Cool compresses on affected areas reduce angioedema and chemosis discomfort. Respiratory difficulty, however, requires immediate medical treatment.
Anaphylaxis is a life-threatening allergic reaction to beef. Unlike hives or angioedema, anaphylaxis involves all the body's systems and develops almost immediately following exposure to the beef allergen. Histamines flood from several types of tissue, closing off the airways. They may also cause abdominal cramps, dizziness or fainting, coughing, anxiety or irregular breath sounds. Anaphylaxis requires immediate medical treatment. Stopgap measures until help arrives include cardiopulmonary resuscitation and shock prevention measures. If you've tested positive for a beef allergy, ask your doctor about prescribing injectable epinephrine as an emergency anaphylaxis treatment. Keep it with you, along with a medical condition ID bracelet and a supply of chewable diphenhydramine tablets.
The Tick Connection
A study headed by researchers from the University of Virginia and presented in the May 2011 issue of the "Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology" suggests that the antibodies causing allergic reactions to tick bites are responsible for increased sensitivity to the alpha-gal in beef. In three of the study's tick-bitten participants, sensitivity to the beef allergen increased by a factor of 20 or more.