Imagine a world in which red meat suddenly becomes poisonous, smoke from a barbecue causes you to break out in hives and a hotdog is enough to cause anaphylactic shock and even death.
For many, such an existence would seem nightmarish. For one Athens woman, though, it is her reality.
“It’s a scary thing to know that something I’ve been eating my entire life can now put me in the hospital fighting for my life,” said Carole Cape.
In March, the 55-year-old real estate agent spent a week in the hospital following a severe allergic reaction to a chili-dog, and as a result, was diagnosed with alpha-gal allergy.
What sounds like the name of Marvel’s newest superhero is actually the nickname for a sugar found in mammalian meats, galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose.
The allergic response caused by alpha-gal can be triggered by any meat that comes from a mammal, which includes beef, pork and venison, and can cause a reaction ranging from an upset stomach and runny nose to anaphylaxis, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology.
While not typically toxic to humans, sufferers of the alpha-gal allergy build an immune response to the sugar after being bitten by a lone star tick, which is common across the eastern half of the United States.
The allergy can often take months, or even years, to fully manifest itself after a bite, the ACAAI noted.
“It’s not like I was bitten two months ago. As far as I recall, I haven’t had a tick bite in one or two years,” Cape said. “You don’t know if you’re walking around with it or not.”
In Cape’s case, the first signs of her alpha-gal sensitivity were unexplained bouts of hives.
“I started carrying Benadryl in my pocketbook; I would just take one to knock out the hives,” she said, adding that doctors originally thought the rashes were stress-related. “Looking back now, that was just the beginning of all of this.”
After going into full-blown anaphylactic shock, Cape’s allergy was finally diagnosed.
Now, in addition to her Benadryl, she religiously carries two EpiPens and wears a medical alert bracelet.
“When the doctor told me I had alpha-gal, I looked at him and said, ‘What is that?’” Cape recalled. “I had never even heard of it before.”
Cape, like most Americans, had never heard of alpha-gal because the disease and its connection to tick bites wasn’t discovered until 2009.
She now joins the ranks of thousands of alpha-gal allergy sufferers who have since been diagnosed, and the even larger number of people fighting to raise awareness of the disease.
“Everyone needs to know about this disease,” Cape said. “I think the more aware we become of it, the more people we can prevent from having to live life like I am — on the edge.”