A five-year-old girl from Mississippi woke up one morning in June and couldn’t walk. The reason? A tick bite.
“I was just thinking that her legs were asleep until I noticed that she couldn’t hardly talk!” her mother Jessica Griffin wrote on Facebook.
While combing her daughter Kailin’s hair, she noticed a tick on her scalp, Griffin told Mississippi News Now. She removed the tick and rushed her daughter to hospital.
After blood work and a CT scan, the child was diagnosed with tick paralysis.
It didn’t last long, though. Later that evening, Kailin was able to walk out of the hospital.
“Scary is a UNDERSTATEMENT! She has been such a champ throughout this whole ordeal!,” wrote Griffin.
“Fortunately, it is relatively rare,” said Robbin Lindsay, a research scientist at the Public Health Agency of Canada who specializes in ticks.
Tick paralysis is caused by a toxin released by the saliva of certain ticks when they bite someone, usually around the head or neck, he said.
After a female tick feeds for five to seven days, the toxin builds up in a person’s system. Then, it can cause symptoms like tingling in the face and limbs, fatigue, weakness and muscle pain, according to the B.C. Centre for Disease Control.
Over several days, this can progress to paralysis that starts in the legs and moves upward, said Lindsay.
“If the ticks aren’t removed, the accumulation of this saliva can result in disruption of the respiratory muscles and the paralysis can be fatal.”
When the tick is removed, the paralysis goes away. Symptoms lessen in minutes or hours and the patient typically recovers completely after 1.5 to 2.5 days, according to a recent case report in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.
Women and children are most at risk. “These ticks have to go undetected on a person’s body, usually on the head,” said Lindsay. “And girls with longer hair, maybe, make it harder to locate and promptly remove those ticks.”
In Canada, tick paralysis is most commonly caused by the Rocky Mountain wood tick, with most cases in south-central B.C., he said. Some cases in livestock have been caused by the American dog tick, found east of Saskatchewan.
Preventing this disease is the same as any other tick-borne illness: don’t get bitten, and remove any attached ticks promptly.
“I think people should get out there and enjoy the great outdoors, just remember ticks are out there,” he said.
To protect yourself from tick bites, stay on the trail, wear light-coloured clothing and wear an insect repellant containing DEET or icaridin. Showering when you get home can wash away ticks that haven’t attached yet and putting your clothes in a hot dryer will help to kill any ticks that may be caught in them.
You should also perform a thorough “tick check” when you get home: carefully check your skin for ticks. “Doing thorough and complete tick checks is the way to prevent this infection,” Lindsay said.
You should also check your children for any ticks, something that Griffin urges all parents to do.
“PLEASE for the love of god check your kids for ticks!” she wrote.
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