By Loren Grush
Mike Abley will always remember the last hamburger he ever ate. It was more than 20 years ago, and he recalls the meat being particularly juicy and delicious.
But a few hours after dinner, Abley started itching like mad. He burst into hives, his tongue swelled, and he eventually passed out, prompting his wife to call 911. At the hospital, doctors determined he had gone into anaphylactic shock—a potentially deadly allergic reaction.
Fortunately, Abley pulled through, and he later met with an allergist to determine what had caused the terrifying episode. A series of tests revealed something strange: The hamburger had triggered the reaction. And it wasn’t just the beef he was allergic to; it was practically all red meat.
“I’ve always said I think it’s karma,” says Abley, now 73, a lifetime resident of Virginia. “My family have been cattle ranchers for generations.”
Abley is one of at least 1,500 people in the United States who suffer allergic reactions after eating meat, and doctors interviewed by Popular Science believe such cases are on the rise. But what’s even more bizarre is the source of the allergy. The condition, called alpha-gal allergy, is caused by the bite of a Lone Star tick—a species traditionally found mostly in the Southern United States but has spread farther north in recent years.