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Family's viral Facebook post highlights rare paralysis from tick bite

An Oregon mom says her daughter was suffering from tick paralysis after she struggled to walk, symptoms that were caught in a now-viral video.
/ Source: TODAY Contributor

A Facebook post shared by an Oregon family is highlighting a rare danger from ticks.

Amanda Lewis posted an alarming video on Facebook on May 13 that shows her daughter, Evelyn, struggling to stand up and walk. “She could barely walk, or crawl, and could hardly use her arms,” Lewis wrote.

As her symptoms worsened, Evelyn was taken to the emergency room. Luckily, the doctor had an idea of what to look for: a tick.

“The doctor talked to us for a minute and said over the past 15 years he had seen about 7 or 8 children her age with identical symptoms and more than likely she had a tick,” Lewis wrote. “They looked her over, combed through her hair really well and sure enough found a tick hiding in her hair.”

“This condition is called tick paralysis,” she continued in the post. “It can affect dogs also and can be fatal. I'm glad we took her in when we did and that it wasn't something worse and that we found it before it got worse.”

Lewis, whose video has 19 million views on Facebook, wrote that the tick was removed, and it took until the next morning for Evelyn to start feeling like herself again.

"It is terrifying to watch your child struggle especially when you have no idea what's wrong or how to fix it," Lewis said in a text message to NBC News. "Thanks to the doctor we had in the ER that day, our baby girl has recovered wonderfully and is now completely back to normal."

Tick paralysis is a rare disease that causes temporary, acute weakness and paralysis when a tick becomes attached to the body, Dr. Eugene Shapiro, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Yale School of Medicine, told TODAY. The disease is believed to be caused by a toxin in the tick’s saliva that impairs a person's nerve function, he said.

“There’s a toxin that is secreted by ticks from their salivary glands that is toxic to nerves in humans,” Shapiro said.

Tick paralysis often begins in the lower extremities and moves upward in the body, he said. Once the tick is removed, people start to get better as the symptoms begin to disappear.

“They usually start to go away within hours of the removal of the tick,” Shapiro said, adding that most people are back to normal after about 24 hours.

However, it can be fatal if the respiratory muscles like the diaphragm become paralyzed and a person can’t breathe, he said.

“The trick is being aware of this as a possible cause in somebody who presents like that little girl did with apparent weakness that is sudden and unexplained,” Shapiro said, referring to Evelyn. “You have to know to look for the tick.”

Lewis is grateful that Evelyn’s doctor did.

“I’m so thankful that we got her to the doctor quickly before her symptoms got worse and that the doctor in the ER that day had experience with this, otherwise who knows how many tests they would have been doing on her trying to figure out what was wrong!” she wrote on Facebook.

Evelyn’s illness came during the height of tick activity, which generally runs from spring to fall.

Tick paralysis can occur from a tick bite anywhere in the country and symptoms typically occur after a tick has been attached for a few days, Shapiro said. It can come from various kinds of ticks.

“It’s been implicated with many kinds of different ticks, yet it’s an extremely rare occurrence,” Shapiro said. “It’s not like we see 50 kids a week or 50 kids a year with this. It’s very rare.”

Tick paralysis may be a little more common in children than in adults, partly because of their smaller body mass, Shapiro said.

The same prevention methods for Lyme disease also apply to tick paralysis, Shapiro said:

  • Check your body for ticks in out-of-the-way places like under the hair on the scalp, the groin and under the armpits.
  • Wear light-colored clothing outdoors.
  • Shower soon after coming inside.

Lewis was thankful for the good wishes, and urged people to check their families for ticks.

"Not many people were aware something like this could happen from a little tick bite, so even though this was a nerve-wracking day for us, we are happy to share our experience in the hopes that this can be prevented from happening to someone else's child," she said in the text to NBC News. "We are so happy and relieved and thankful to God that we have our sweet and sassy little girl back to normal."

With tick bites so common, one thing about tick paralysis remains a mystery.

“Why doesn’t everybody suffer from tick paralysis when they get a tick bite?” Shapiro said. “We don’t know.”


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6 things to know about Lyme and tick diseases contributor Lisa A. Flam is a news and lifestyles reporter in New York. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.