Never mind Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. I have a new reason to fear ticks: Tick paralysis.
The ailment’s name is as good a description of the affliction as you can get. A simple tick bite, left untreated, can result in full body paralysis, and even death.
I’d never heard of this phenomenon until a few days ago, and I’ve been feeling like I’m crawling with bugs ever since.
Tick diseases came up on board my boat with a group that was about to step off into the swampy woods south of Blakeley State Park. I warned the group that I’d picked up a few ticks last time I tromped through the woods to an ancient Native American shell midden.
One of our party, Dr. John Dixon, whose practice is in Saraland, asked if I’d ever heard of tick paralysis. Nope, I said. Now, I’m no stranger to tick bites. I’ve even had Lyme disease, which I got from a tick in Virginia. Antibiotics cured that, before I suffered any of the more horrific and long-lasting symptoms you hear about with Lyme. But tick paralysis, that was a new one on me.
Dr. Dixon related the curious case of a patient who showed up at his office barely able to move.
“He came into the office and just fell over as I was about to examine him,” Dixon said. “I thought he’d had a heart attack so I told the nurse to call 911 and get an EKG on him. As she was opening his shirt, she said, ‘he’s got a great big tick on his chest.’ I told her to pull it off and he began to rouse almost immediately.”
Dixon went on to explain how tick paralysis works.
It usually occurs about a week after a tick latches on to a person. To cause paralysis, the tick has to remain attached for at least five days, with the likelihood of paralysis increasing the longer the tick stays attached to your body.
Unlike most tick-transmitted diseases, the paralysis ends when the tick is removed from the body.
“If you read the treatment for tick paralysis, it just says ‘Remove the tick,'” Dixon said. “It doesn’t say anything about removing the mouth parts or anything like that. It is just about getting the tick off.”
That’s because tick paralysis is caused by a chemical secreted by the tick after it has been attached to a victim for about a week. It is often fatal in dogs and other creatures. Fatal cases in humans are more rare, mostly because most of us will notice a tick on our bodies once it gets pumped up with blood.
Symptoms usually begin in the legs and arms. First, there might be numbness. Then the muscles become weak and fail to respond to commands. Reflexes deaden. Ultimately, a person is unable to move. Death occurs when the paralysis affects the ability to breathe.
I do a tick check after every trip in the woods. And this time of year, I find a lot of ticks on myself. Last week, I removed four.
We are in the high season for ticks right now. They’ve just emerged from their winter hibernation and are actively looking for hosts so they can complete their life cycle and mate. The ticks most likely to cause paralysis are females carrying eggs. Scientists aren’t completely sure why they are more likely to cause paralysis.
One habit I’m trying to break is walking along animal trails in the woods. Often, particularly in a thick swamp, animals such as deer, raccoons, or feral hogs will have tramped along the same route often enough over several years to create an easily discernible trail. As such game trails are usually the easiest way to get through the forest, I find myself walking them. This is a mistake.
It’s all about the tick pastime of “questing.” This is how ticks find new hosts. As ticks move from stage to stage in their life cycle, from egg to larva to nymph and finally adult, they will usually change hosts. So a larval tick might drop off a host as it changes into a nymph. Because ticks are thick on the wild animals using these game trails, a lot of ticks fall off onto the surrounding vegetation. That’s when the questing begins.
Ticks looking for a new host will climb up on the vegetation around the game trails. Perched on a leaf and holding on with three or four of their legs, they’ll hold the remaining limbs (they have eight) up in the air in the hopes of feeling an animal or person brush by. This is questing, a tick waving his arms hoping to find a new meal.
When they do, they’ll hop on and hunt for a nice soft place to sink their teeth in. Once, after walking a game trail, I found eight tiny ticks in my beard. My best guess is I brushed past a spot where an adult tick had laid eggs. A bunch of pinhead-sized larval ticks were all questing together looking for their first host. I happened to be the first thing that walked by.
All this tick talk has my skin crawling. I literally feel bugs all over me as I write this. The thing about tick paralysis is that it is not caused by the ticks you find in your armpit, or on your belly, where I found a particularly big tick the other day. Instead, the ones to watch for are the ticks you’ll miss in a cursory search of your body.
The experts warn to pay particular attention to the area where your hair begins to grow at the top of your neck. Ticks love to hide just beneath the hairline, right along the border.
I’m itching there most of all. Perhaps I’ll just shave my head for the summer.
Ben Raines specializes in investigations and natural wonders. You can follow him via Facebook, Twitter at BenHRaines, and on Instagram. You can reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can watch Ben’s most recent documentary, The Underwater Forest, here on Youtube.