He first felt ill one night in June after eating some elk sausage at his home on Minnesota’s Northwest Angle, Paul Colson recalls.
“It was a gastrointestinal sort of thing,” said Colson, 51, who owns Jake’s Northwest Angle Resort with his wife, Karen. “It wasn’t severe or anything, but it was like nausea, diarrhea, and I didn’t really think a whole lot of it.”
A few days later, they grilled up some pork steak, and within 2½ to 3 hours after eating, Colson felt ill again. This time, the reaction was even stronger and included a rash. He took Benadryl and Pepto-Bismol to “settle things down” but still felt pretty cruddy the next day.
A beef steak for dinner several days later produced the same reaction.
“Now we’re like, ‘Uh-oh, something’s going on here,’” Colson said. “That was kind of like an allergic reaction because of the rash, itchy palms and that sort of thing.”
Colson says he knew about alpha-gal syndrome, a strange allergy transmitted most commonly by the Lone Star tick that causes people to become allergic to red meat, from media reports and other things he’d read about the condition.
Little did he know he would be diagnosed with alpha-gal syndrome within weeks.
“Alpha-gal up here, it sounds like you’re a hypochondriac, when you start talking about alpha-gal in this part of the world and originating from this part of the world,” Colson said.
The Lone Star tick is native to the southeastern U.S., and while there’s evidence the tick is moving north and west, it hasn’t been found at the Northwest Angle, the northernmost point of the Lower 48.
Colson says his family used to joke about how awful it would be to get sick from eating venison or other red meat, but getting sick all three times after eating red meat was no laughing matter. And while it seemed consistent with what he’d read about alpha-gal syndrome, Colson says he held off on seeking medical attention.
All of the meat that made him sick was fairly fatty, Colson says. That made him think he might have gallbladder trouble, since fatty foods are known to trigger attacks.
He made an appointment in July to see a doctor at Altru Clinic in Roseau, Minn., but decided to try eating some canned elk a couple of days before the visit.
“There is no fat in that, I mean like none, and we made a stew out of it,” Colson said. “And honest to God, when I was eating, I felt the back of my tongue and my throat start to swell. And I actually did throw up from that one. … It hit me pretty hard.”
According to the Mayo Clinic website, alpha-gal syndrome results when a tick transmits a sugar molecule called alpha-gal into a person’s body. Animals such as cows and sheep carry the molecule in their blood, the website states, and if a tick that bites a mammal later bites a person, the immune response can produce mild to severe allergic reactions to red meat or other mammal products.
There’s also evidence that deer ticks may transmit alpha-gal syndrome
The clinic in Roseau wasn’t able to test for alpha-gal syndrome, Colson said, and so he made an appointment in early August to see an allergist at Sanford Health in Fargo. A blood test confirmed the diagnosis a couple of days later.
While uncommon, there have been a few cases of alpha-gal syndrome in the prairie lakes country of western Minnesota, the allergist told Colson.
“I was kind of surprised by that,” he said.
Still, little is known about the prevalence of alpha-gal syndrome in Minnesota and North Dakota, since it isn’t a reportable condition in either state. Lone Star ticks have been documented in both states, but that’s where the knowledge base ends.
“We have heard occasional reports of (alpha-gal syndrome) in Minnesota, but don’t actually have any data we could share,” said Doug Schultz, an information officer for the Minnesota Department of Health. “It’s a fairly complicated allergy, and there is definitely a lot still to learn about exactly why it happens.”
The story’s the same in North Dakota, said Michelle Wilson, a communications coordinator for the state Department of Health. The department has conducted tick surveillance in recent years, and while Lone Star ticks have been found in North Dakota, there have been no reports this year, Wilson said.
“Surveillance has also documented the presence of the deer tick, which some evidence has suggested could trigger alpha-gal syndrome, as well,” she said.
Colson said he was bitten by regular dog ticks a half-dozen times this spring but they weren't attached for more than a couple of hours, and he wasn’t bitten anywhere but the Northwest Angle.
“My wife and I are very adamant about looking for ticks if we’ve been in ‘tick-y’ places where we feel we could have picked them up,” he said.
Colson says he feels “100%” as long as he doesn’t eat red meat, so mealtime these days includes chicken and lots of fish, including, of course, Lake of the Woods walleye.
Not being able to eat red meat is a minor inconvenience in the grand scheme of things, Colson says.
“I have still never eaten a Burger King or McDonald’s hamburger,” Colson said. “I grew up on venison so much that beef had a weird flavor. And so, it’s venison that I miss the most.”
An avid hunter, he isn’t going to let the condition change his fall plans.
“The ducks are going to catch it on the chin, I’ll tell you that, and I’m going to go after sandhill cranes, which I’ve never done,” he said.
Widely known as “ribeye in the sky,” sandhill crane could be a worthy substitute to beef or other red meat.
“You could put in there that if somebody would want to donate some sandhill crane, I’d be all over that,” Colson joked.
There’s no cure for alpha-gal syndrome, but Colson is planning a trip to Chicago to see an acupuncturist.
“Apparently, they have a high degree of success with that,” he said. “Some people, if they don’t get re-exposed, they naturally get over this. So, that’s where I’m at. I’ll go get some acupuncture done, and then we’ll see.”
Colson says he feels fortunate to have known enough about alpha-gal syndrome to get tested and receive a fast diagnosis. Some people go years without knowing.
And if someone at the Northwest Angle can contract alpha-gal syndrome, it can happen just about anywhere, Colson says.
“It needs to be brought up,” he said. “People need to be aware of it because it’s here.”