Can a tick really paralyze a person?

There are many different kinds of ticks that attach to humans and animals.

June 11, 2018, 4:31 PM

With a 5-year-old daughter she said was unable to walk and talk, a Mississippi mom urgently warned parents to check their children for ticks.

Jessica Griffin wrote on Facebook that doctors in Mississippi performed a multitude of tests and a CT scan on her daughter, Kailyn, suspecting everything from a stroke to a neurological syndrome -- until they found the cause of little girl’s odd symptoms: A tick on the crown of her head.

Once the tick was removed, Kailyn’s symptoms subsided and she was "completely back to normal," her mom said.

“PLEASE for the love of god check your kids for ticks! It’s more common in children than it is adults!” Griffin urged in her Facebook post.

Here is more about how and why ticks can cause paralysis and worse.

What is tick paralysis?

Tick paralysis is caused by a toxin found in tick saliva, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Although it is rare, tick paralysis is important to recognize because it can be fatal or nearly fatal.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms usually begin with numbness or tingling, fatigue or weakness. In addition, muscle pain, restlessness and irritability can occur.

As it progresses, people can become more wobbly, with double vision and difficulty talking or swallowing, which can present as drooling. Usually there is no fever and no headache.

Tick paralysis can also look like stroke, causing weakness on one side of the body. Reflexes can be absent and, in severe cases, respiratory muscles can be affected, making it difficult to breathe.

Symptoms do not start right away, but typically start to appear after the tick has been feeding on the person or animal for four to seven days.

PHOTO: Rocky Mountain wood tick, Dermacentor andersoni, is seen pictured in this undated stock photo.
Rocky Mountain wood tick, Dermacentor andersoni, is seen pictured in this undated stock photo.
STOCK PHOTO/Getty Images

Which ticks can cause paralysis?More than 40 tick species worldwide are known to cause tick paralysis. In the U.S., the tick species that causes the most cases of paralysis in humans are the Rocky Mountain wood tick and the American dog tick.

How is it diagnosed and treated?If someone who has been outdoors in the spring or summer months suddenly becomes weak and appears to be getting worse, tick paralysis could be the cause. Most cases occur in children.

Unlike many other bites, tick bites don’t usually hurt or itch at first. While they can start small, once the tick swells up as it feeds, it can become more visible.

Tick paralysis has been frequently misdiagnosed as another disease that causes paralysis called Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS), according to a 2010 meta-analysis in the Journal of Medical Toxicology.

The main treatment for tick paralysis is completely removing the tick, including all of its mouthparts, since they contain the salivary glands that produce the toxin. Symptoms usually improve with 24 hours, according to the CDC, after the tick has been completely removed.

Other tick-borne diseases Several other diseases are associated with ticks, the most well-known include Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Other tick-borne diseases include Southern Tick-Associated Rash Illness, ehrlichiosis and babesiosis.

The best way to avoid tick bites that can cause disease is to avoid walking through or brushing against vegetation and perform daily self-examinations for ticks. Wearing long-sleeved shirts and pants, and enclosed shoes, can also help.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events