Tick paralysis is a very rare but very serious condition. Researchers believe the cause is a tick releasing a sufficient amount of toxins after feeding on a person for several days. While many ticks can carry the toxin, it’s most commonly found in the Rocky Mountain wood tick and the American dog tick. Once in the brain, the toxin impairs nervous system functioning.
Tick paralysis is mostly diagnosed in children, as the toxin becomes more concentrated in smaller bodies. However, tick paralysis can also occur in adults.
Most cases of tick paralysis occur in areas where Rocky Mountain wood ticks and American dog ticks are more active. In the U.S., that’s the Northwest, Rocky Mountain states, and the Southeast. But it’s possible to encounter a tick carrying the paralyzing toxin anywhere in the U.S.
Even in these areas, however, tick paralysis is exceedingly rare. Colorado and Washington each of these two states only averages about a single case a year. (States aren’t required to report the condition, so it is unknown how many cases occur in the US).
People with tick paralysis typically recover fully once tick is removed and the toxin is flushed out by the body.
Symptoms of Tick Paralysis
Most people first notice symptoms of numbness and tingling, fatigue, muscle pains and weakness. This can progress to balance and coordination problems, slow eye movement, slow or non-existent reflexes, and slurring of speech.
As the toxin continues to build, people experience paralysis, or an inability to move. It starts in the feet and legs and moves upward over several hours or days. If the paralysis moves up into the organs, the heart can stop and tick paralysis can be fatal. In cases where paralysis isn’t recognized before it reaches the trunk of the body, it is fatal about 10% of the time.
If tick paralysis affects a child who may not be able to express their symptoms, the first signs may be that the child has problems walking. The child may fall and have difficulty getting up again.
People typically develop symptoms once they have had a tick attached to them for four or more days. If you don’t find the tick, it helps to think back on recent activities where the affected person may have encountered ticks. Common activities that lead to tick bites are walking through the woods or an area with tall grass.
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How Is Tick Paralysis Diagnosed and Treated?
Because tick paralysis is so rare, a health provider might not consider it. Tick paralysis is often misdiagnosed at first as Guillain-Barre syndrome or botulism, which have similar symptoms.
A doctor will also physically examine the person and may order tests, like one that stimulates the nerves to measure nerve function.
If your doctor suspects tick paralysis, they will look for the attached tick — and make a diagnosis if they find a tick. Ticks are often found on the scalp and neck, but they might also be in hiding spots like the groin or ear canal. There is no medication for tick paralysis; the treatment is simply removing the tick.
When Does Tick Paralysis Occur?
Tick paralysis is most commonly diagnosed in the U.S. between April and June. These are the months when the ticks most commonly associated with the disease are most likely to bite humans. However, tick paralysis can occur any time when ticks are active.
To prevent tick paralysis, wear protective clothing outdoors and check for ticks after walking through a forest or tall grass.
American Lyme Disease Foundation. What is Tick Paralysis? Link
BC Centre for Disease Control. Tick Paralysis. Link
Colorado Tick-Borne Disease Awareness Association. Tick Paralysis. Link
Dr. Leslie Simon et al. Tick Paralysis. StatPearls. Link
Karma Allen and Briana Montalvo. Mississippi mom says daughter, 5, lost ability to walk after tick bite. ABC News. Link
Dr. Daniel Sexton. Tick Paralysis. UpToDate. Link
Washington State Department of Health. Tick-borne Diseases: Tick Paralysis. Link
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