I-TEAM: Family pays it forward after tick bite threatens dad’s life

Published: Aug. 18, 2022 at 6:51 PM EDT
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - A Columbia County family is paying it forward after a young father is cured of a life-threatening disease he got from a tick bite.

It’s called alpha-gal syndrome and makes you dangerously allergic to red meat. As strange as it sounds, doctors say it’s becoming very common in our area.

Donald Toulson loves to be outside.

“I’ve probably bought more bug spray in the last four years than most people have in a lifetime,” he said.

This father of two wasn’t even a father when his first allergic reaction woke him out of a dead sleep.

“My face was swelling, and my tongue started swelling, and that’s when, you know, you start getting a little worried,” he said.

“I thought he’d been bit by something,” explained Amber Toulson. “I was like, pulling back the sheets, thought he got bit by a spider or something. I didn’t know what was going on because it happened in the middle of the night. We had been asleep for several hours.”

Lone star tick
Lone star tick

Amber was pregnant with their first child at the time. They were at the lake with friends and far from the hospital. Amber is a nurse, so she knew to give Donald Benadryl. It seemed to work.

“We were set to get home the next day, and we were just like, ‘that was strange.’ We really had no idea what happened.”

Days later, it happened again, and after reaching for the Benadryl, Donald reached for his phone.

“I kind of just remembered reading an article, I don’t know, a year maybe before, a couple months -- I don’t really recall -- about a tick bite, perhaps causing a meat allergy.”

Dr. Donnie Dunagan is Donald’s allergist.

“It’s very real, and it’s a very life-threatening disease,” he said. “(Five years ago) I might see one case every month or so, and now I’ve already seen three patients this week with alpha-gal.”

That’s likely because the tick that causes it is the most common tick in both Georgia in South Carolina.

It’s called the lone star tick, and while it’s found in Texas too, it gets its name from a single white dot on the female’s back.

Males don’t have a “star,” but both carry the disease.

Dr. Dunagan says symptoms won’t show up until about six to eight weeks after a bite, and when they do, they aren’t exactly unique. Symptoms can include the following:

  • Hives or itchy rash
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Heartburn or indigestion
  • Diarrhea
  • Cough, shortness of breath, or difficulty breathing
  • Drop in blood pressure
  • Swelling of the lips, throat, tongue, or eyelids
  • Dizziness or faintness
  • Severe stomach pain
  • Symptoms commonly appear two to six hours after eating meat or dairy products or after exposure to products containing alpha-gal (for example, gelatin-coated medications).
  • AGS reactions can be different from person to person. They can range from mild to severe or even life-threatening. Anaphylaxis (a potentially life-threatening reaction involving multiple organ systems) may need urgent medical care.

“I had a lady this morning who, she doesn’t have the abdominal symptoms, but she has very severe hives, swelling. And just recently, she actually became hypotensive and had to be transmitted to the emergency department,” Dr. Dunagan said.

The reaction happens hours after eating red meat, making it even more difficult to put two-and-two together. It’s not just red meat. It can also be pork, lamb, venison, or bison.

Dr. Dunagan says if it has a hoof, you cannot eat it. Some people are so allergic, they can’t even have dairy.

After cutting out meat and dairy, one of Dr. Dunagan’s patients was still having reactions.

And I’m like, what is it that you’re eating? And she goes, ‘Well, I eat Lucky Charms.’ And I’m like, ‘That’s what it is.’ Because it has marshmallows, and marshmallows are made of gelatin,” Dr. Dunagan said.

Gelatin is collagen from animal skin. Gummy bears can also be off limits for some.

Sure chicken, turkey, and seafood are fine, but when you think about cross-contamination at restaurants putting them on the same grill as other meats, going out to eat can be dangerous for someone with alpha-gal.

The Toulsons recall having to ask questions about what kind of broth was used in recipes and having to explain Donald’s allergy. That’s why they say they ate a lot of Chick-Fil-A.

They say, at least, they knew that was safe. The good news is if a patient avoids meat and tick bites, the danger can eventually go away.

Additional links:

  • Products that may contain alpha-gal: CDC
  • Standardized case definition for alpha-gal syndrome: CSTE
  • How to remove a tick: CDC
  • Tick bite data tracker: CDC

After four years, Donald’s bloodwork finally came back negative, and Dr. Dunagan cleared him to eat red meat again.

He went to a cookout, and he says he tried one rib. He joked that one rib passed the test, so he had his first steak in years on Father’s Day.

With football season around the corner, Donald says he is ready to fire up the grill.

“There’s light at the end of the tunnel,” Amber said. “You can get over this, and you can go back to eating the things that you enjoy again.”

For those of you who enjoy being outside, take it from Donald: bug spray might need to be your new best friend.

“When I see a tick out here, it’s a lone star tick,” Donald said. “So, you just have to be careful.”

Alpha-gal syndrome was only discovered in 2009, so doctors are still learning a lot about it. They estimate one in every 100 people has it. If you have pets, they can bring Lone Star ticks into your house, so you can get a bite even if you aren’t “outdoorsy” like Donald.

To avoid ticks, Dr. Dunagan suggests using bug spray with ‘DEET’ and that you wear light-colored clothing. He says ticks do not seem to be as attracted to that as they are to dark-colored clothing.

He also suggests full body checks when you’ve spent time outside. Here are more ways the CDC recommends preventing tick bites.

The FDA has approved the first genetically modified, gal-safe meat. That’s where this gal-safe pig comes in.

In December 2020, the FDA approved a genetic modification in pigs that eliminates detectable amounts of alpha-gal.

The company, Revivicor, has been using these pigs for food and medicine and should have meat available to buy in the coming year or so.

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