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Woman with tick-induced meat allergy recalls life-threatening reaction: ‘Terrifying’

A lone star tick led to one woman's severe allergy symptoms for 15 years.

Overnight, Candice Matthis began to develop severe and puzzling symptoms. She had stomach pains and a sudden drop in blood pressure.

"It was terrifying," she told NBC’s Morgan Chesky. "It was very unnerving and overwhelming."

After 15 years without answers, doctors eventually identified a tick — the lone star tick — as the source of Matthis' condition. Just one bite from a lone star tick can lead to alpha-gal syndrome, which causes severe allergy symptoms in response to red meat.

RELATED: What is alpha-gal allergy? Tick bites are causing more people to become allergic to red meat

In some cases, including Matthis', alpha-gal syndrome can lead to a life-threatening reaction called anaphylaxis. This causes the airways to narrow and blood pressure to drop, according to the Mayo Clinic. If it's not treated quickly, anaphylaxis can be deadly.

And Matthis doesn't even need to eat meat for the syndrome to cause an issue. Just being around someone cooking can be enough, she said. "I've gone anaphylactic within 10 minutes of inhaling the fumes of mammalian meat or dairy cooking."

So, how exactly does a tick cause a meat allergy? Researchers believe it happens when the tick first bites an animal host, like a deer. The tick picks up alpha-gal, a type of sugar molecule found in most mammals, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Then, when it bites a human, the tick transfers alpha-gal to the human's bloodstream where the person may become sensitized to it and develop an allergy.

Alpha-gal is also present in meat products (including beef, lamb and pork) as well as some dairy products, such as ice cream. If someone who is already sensitized to alpha-gal due to a lone star tick bite eats one of those foods containing this sugar, that can trigger their allergic symptoms.

The number of people affected by alpha-gal syndrome is growing, and the condition is most common in the Southeast, TODAY previously reported. As many as 3% of all Americans could have an alpha-gal allergy. Arkansas, Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma and Missouri have the highest case rates per 100,000 people. Cases have been detected as far north as Maine and Washington state.

The symptoms of alpha-gal syndrome can vary from person to person, Dr. Scott Commins, who studies alpha-gal syndrome and treats patients with the condition at the UNC Allergy & Immunology Clinic in North Carolina, told TODAY. Symptoms usually occur within two to six hours of exposure to a product containing alpha-gal, per the CDC.

"It looks like an inflamed, red, itchy welt at the site of the tick bite," Commins explained. "People will say it's slow to heal." Sometimes patients notice the site of the tick bite is the first part of their body to start itching if they have a reaction after eating meat, he added.

If properly diagnosed and treated, the symptoms of alpha-gal syndrome may last for up to three to five years.

RELATED: How severe will this year’s tick season be? Here’s what to know

Unfortunately, tick seasons are generally getting more severe every year, experts told TODAY previously. It's important to be on your guard, so be aware of the ticks that are present in your area of the country and their usual habitats, which typically include brushy or wooded areas.

If you know you'll be spending a lot of time outdoors during tick season, protect yourself by wearing EPA-registered repellants or even pre-treating your hiking gear with permethrin. Also, remember to perform tick checks on yourself and your pets after spending time outside.

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