An active start to the summer gave way to a terrifying moment for one Mississippi mother whose 5-year-old daughter was suddenly unable to walk and had difficulty talking. The culprit: a tick that had hidden itself in the young girl's hairline.
"After tons of blood work and a CT of the head UMMC has ruled it as tick paralysis," shared the mom, Jessica Griffin, in a now-viral Facebook post. "PLEASE for the love of god check your kids for ticks! It's more common in children than it is adults!"
Thankfully, the young girl made a quick recovery after the tick was removed and she got care. As Dr. Ben Brock, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Mississippi Medical Center explained to a local news station of the case, tick paralysis is a rare condition that requires the tick is attached to the host for at least four days—so removing it immediately upon detection should help avoid it.
"You should use tweezers to try and remove the entire tick and that includes removing the mouthparts," he says. "Squeezing the tick can force its contents into your skin if the mouth parts are still attached."
Tickborne illnesses are on the rise—and awareness is key
Although tick paralysis is uncommon, infections caused by ticks are on the rise: Since 2004, researchers have identified seven new germs that can be transmitted from ticks found in the United States. In May, officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said this is no small threat, especially as the United States is "not fully prepared" to deal with diseases spread by ticks, mosquitoes and fleas.
"The data show that we're seeing a steady increase and spread of tickborne diseases," says Lyle Petersen, M.D., M.P.H., director of the Division of Vector-Borne Diseases for the CDC. "We need to support state and local health agencies responsible for detecting and responding to these diseases and controlling the mosquitoes, ticks and fleas that spread them."
According to the CDC, May to July is peak season for ticks with more people and animals infected at that time than during the rest of the year. Children—especially those with long hair—may be at increased risk because they aren't able to self-identify ticks on their bodies. To mitigate this risk, experts recommend avoiding ideas with high grass, wearing long sleeves or pants when possible and conducting full-body checks on children's skin and hair when they come inside.
Even brief bites can cause problems
Parents should check themselves, too, as adults are also attractive to ticks. When Caitie plucked a pin-sized tick off her leg last summer, she thought little of it. Living in Kansas, she was in the habit of applying bug spray before going outside and had developed a few tricks for dealing with the bad reactions she seemed to have to any kind of bug bite. "I rode horses, I played sports, and I knew what steps to take to decrease the risk of a tickborne illness," she tells Motherly.
It wasn't long before she realized this bite was different: In the coming days, the site where the tick had been became increasingly inflamed—eventually developing a tender red ring around it the same diameter as a can of soda. But worst of all was the fatigue. "I basically felt like I got hit by a train," she says. "I just figured that since I have such bad reactions to other big bites it wasn't anything to worry about. It wasn't until I started getting awful that I thought maybe I should go to the doctor."
Two weeks after the bite and increasingly exhausted, Caitie went to the doctor and was diagnosed with a vague "tickborne illness," which they suspected to be Lyme disease, an infection that officially affects some 30,000 Americans each year. Experts, however, suspect the true number of Americans infected annually with Lyme disease is closer to 300,000, with thousands more experiencing other tickborne illnesses.
Symptoms can present themselves in different ways
Symptoms from tickborne illnesses vary based on the type of infection. The CDC reports it's most common to experience fever, aches and rashes around the site of the bite. For others, including the Griffin family in Mississippi, the symptoms can be even more frightening. Although the symptoms quickly subsided for the young girl, the side-effects of tick infections can be longer lasting for others—ranging from permanent allergies to red meat to years of fatigue and chronic pain.
Even after Caitie began a month-long course of antibiotics, her symptoms from the illness persisted. "When I went to lay down at night, my feet would feel like they were on fire and the only way to relieve it was to wrap ice packs around them," she says. "I struggled a lot with insomnia and fatigue."
Nearly one year out, she says the symptoms have almost completely diminished, which she credits to quickly removing the tick and starting antibiotics as soon as she did. And with tick season back in full-swing, Caitie says she's even more vigilant about wearing long clothing and avoiding overgrown grass—because one tick bite was more than enough.