He became an involuntary vegan.
A New Jersey man is now allergic to red meat after getting bitten by an invasive species of tick — which has left him unable to consume steak, pork or even dairy products without suffering a serious reaction.
“It just flipped everything — turned my life upside down completely,” Craig Smith, 62, told NJ.com of his unwilling conversion to vegetarianism. “You get so frustrated. Food becomes an enemy to you.”
The Cream Ridge-based retiree specifically suffers from Alpha-gal syndrome (AGS), a potentially life-threatening allergy that triggers an immune reaction to a sugar molecule (carbohydrate galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose) found in meat, per the National Institutes of Health.
This insidious condition — diagnoses of which multiplied six-fold between 2011 and 2018 in the US — is spread via the saliva of the lone star tick, an invasive species of bloodsucker named for the distinctive dot on its back.
Originally hailing from the Southern US, this voracious species has become increasingly common throughout the Northeast as well, which experts attribute to warming temperatures.
AGS symptoms generally occur two to six hours after eating meat or dairy products and include hives, difficulty breathing, facial swelling and, most seriously, anaphylaxis — a potentially fatal reaction incorporating all of the above symptoms and more, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which can only be treated with an injection of epinephrine (EpiPen) and a trip to the emergency room.
Smith’s unfortunate saga began all the way back in the spring of last year after he woke up in the middle of the night with painful rashes all over his body.
“You’re itching all over,” explained the frightened New Jersyite, who said some of the welts were the size of dinner plates. “You’re like: What the heck is going on?”
Alarmed, Smith turned to doctors and allergists, but neither were able to definitively diagnose his condition.
They prescribed to him a regimen of steroids, which provided temporary relief from the rashes — only for them to return as soon as his prescription ended.
“As soon as the steroids ran out — boom,” said Smith, who, along with his wife Liz, 66, spent the next few months searching for answers to no avail.
Then, a doctor finally suggested that he might have alpha-gal syndrome.
That’s when the former laborer remembered that he’d been helping his daughter fell trees at her Monmouth property in January and February of last year, which he surmised could’ve been when he got bitten.
A subsequent battery of blood tests confirmed the doctor’s suspicion.
From that point on, Smith was forced to do a dietary overhaul, swapping out beef, pork, lamb and other red meats, as well as dairy, for vegetables, which the alleged picky eater never touched growing up.
This adjustment “devastated” the self-proclaimed “carnivore” and pulled pork lover, who used to love to fire up his meat smoker during backyard barbecues.
“Food is like one of your — I mean, it’s life,” lamented Smith, who can’t eat any of the aforementioned sans falling ill.
And while the poor fellow can still consume chicken, turkey and fish, he says he hates being in “such a narrow food lane.”
And meat isn’t the only source of the AGS’ trigger.
Smith’s blood pressure medication reportedly also contains an animal product-based ingredient with the culprit carb, which prompted him to cease taking it for about a week as he was tired of being sick.
However, the patient said doctors forced him to go back on it as they deemed it “more of a risk to not take the blood pressure medication” despite the egregious side effects.
Smith said the ordeal has even affected his relationship with Liz, who he finally married in 2016 after 35 years together.
“The food, the medicine — when you compile all that together, and then it’s affecting my marriage,” the union man despaired. “It’s affecting my wife.”
And while doctors said the Alpha-gal should disappear within a year, it’s now been over 12 months, and Smith’s meat allergy has shown no signs of abating.
Not only that but there is currently no cure for the disease, which was only discovered over the past two decades. “It was sad,” Smith’s wife Liz rued. “He didn’t get the help he needed.”
Unfortunately, there has been a massive uptick in Alpha-gal cases of late.
While in 2009, there were only two dozen or so cases in the United States; now there are over 34,000 that scientists know of, according to Dr. Scott Commins, an associate professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Meanwhile, the lone star tick itself has migrated ever northward, notably becoming the most common species in Long Island.
“Between 1994 and today, this tick had thoroughly colonized Long Island,” Jorge Benach, a professor of molecular genetics and microbiology and pathology at Stony Brook University, told The Post. “It is the most abundant tick that we have now.”
The lone star tick is particularly insidious in that, unlike other species, this disease vector actively pursues its mammalian prey.
“Most of the other ticks wait for somebody or an animal to pass by, and they’re on grass,” Benach explained. “The lone star tick is what they call the hunter tick. They will seek you out. So you can be sitting in the grass, and they’ll come to you.