How it Occurs
Certain female, egg-laying ticks produce a neurotoxin in their salivary glands that gets passed to their hosts after they latch onto the skin and start to feed. Four species in North America are known to contain this neurotoxin: The American dog tick and the Rocky Mountain wood tick are the most-common carriers, but the Amblyomma and Ixodes are also known to transmit the disease as well. These species are commonly-found in the Southeast, Rockies and Pacific Northwest, and risks of exposure are greater in the spring as ticks become active and start to breed.
Most symptoms start to develop about five to six days after the tick attaches itself to the skin. Victims generally report feeling a tingling sensation, similar to what it feels like when one of our hands or feet falls asleep. This sensation usually starts at the feet and works its way up the legs before traveling along the spinal cord. People can suddenly find it difficult to walk and maintain balance as they lose sensation in their lower extremities. However, paralysis in the face, neck and shoulders is common as the toxin spreads throughout the nervous system.
Left untreated, the toxin can block neurotransmitters that regulate chest muscles that are responsible for breathing, and this can cause people to literally suffocate. In rare cases, the toxin can find its way to the nerves in the brain stem, and these disruptions can impact a wide-range of essential functions such as heart rate, our ability to swallow, speak, and control movement.
Fortunately, symptoms will usually go away soon after the tick is removed and the toxins stop interfering with nerves. However, this condition can often be confused with another tick-borne illness called Guillain-Barre syndrome, and it’s common for doctors to misdiagnose patients and become confused when treatments don’t work. Unfortunately, victims can die before getting appropriate treatment, so awareness and early intervention after the onset of symptoms is imperative.
Who’s at Risk
Tick paralysis affects teen and young girls more than adults. This is because it’s usually harder to detect ticks that have attached themselves to the head and scalp beneath long hair. However, in adults, males are more-likely to become exposed as ticks can be hidden beneath body hair.
The best way to avoid being bitten is to cover exposed skin and check clothing after spending time in tick-prone areas. It’s also important to inspect the hair and scalp before returning home as well. Keep in mind that ticks can also jump from animals to humans, most-commonly from dogs, so it’s important to inspect their coat and remove any ticks that may be present. Finally, it’s not uncommon for people who travel overseas to become exposed and bring ticks back with them. Make sure to check luggage, clothing and your body before getting on that plane and heading home.
Remember that this condition is temporary as long as it is identified early and the ticks are removed from the body. Be vigilant when spending time outdoors, and always check for ticks before coming home.