Tick paralysis is the only tick-borne disease that is not caused by an infectious organism. The illness is caused by a neurotoxin produced in the tick's salivary gland. After prolonged attachment, the engorged tick transmits the toxin to its host. The incidence of tick paralysis is unknown.
Signs and symptoms
Tick paralysis results from inoculation of a toxin from tick salivary glands during a blood meal. The toxin causes symptoms within 2-7 days, beginning with weakness in both legs that progresses to paralysis. The paralysis ascends upward to trunk, arms, and head within hours and may lead to respiratory failure and death. The disease can present as acute ataxia without muscle weakness.
Electromyographic (EMG) studies usually show a variable reduction in the amplitude of compound muscle action potentials but no abnormalities of repetitive nerve stimulation studies. These appear to result from a failure of acetylcholine release at the motor nerve terminal level. There may be subtle abnormalities of motor nerve conduction velocity and sensory action potentials.
Tick paralysis is believed to be due to toxins found in the tick's saliva that enter the bloodstream while the tick is feeding. The two ticks most commonly associated with North American tick paralysis are the Rocky Mountain wood tick (Dermacentor andersoni) and the American dog tick (Dermacentor variabilis); however, 43 tick species have been implicated in human disease around the world. Most North American cases of tick paralysis occur from April to June, when adult Dermacentor ticks emerge from hibernation and actively seek hosts.. In Australia, tick paralysis is caused by the tick Ixodes holocyclus. Up to 1989 20 fatal cases have been reported in Australia.
Tick paralysis has killed thousands of animals, mainly cows and sheep, in other parts of the world. Although tick paralysis is of concern in domestic animals and livestock in the United States as well, human cases are rare and usually occur in children under the age of 10.
Tick paralysis occurs when an engorged and gravid (egg-laden) female tick produces a neurotoxin in its salivary glands and transmits it to its host during feeding. Experiments have indicated that the greatest amount of toxin is produced between the fifth and seventh day of attachment (often initiating or increasing the severity of symptoms), although the timing may vary depending on the species of tick.
Unlike Lyme disease, ehrlichiosis, and babesiosis, which are caused by the systemic proliferation and expansion of parasites in their hosts long after the offending tick is gone, tick paralysis is chemically induced by the tick and can therefore usually only continues in its presence. Once the tick is removed, symptoms usually diminish rapidly. However, in some cases, profound paralysis can develop and even become fatal before anyone becomes aware of a tick's presence.
Diagnosis is based on symptoms and upon finding an embedded tick, usually on the scalp.
Tick paralysis should be differentiated from other causes of muscle weakness, hypotonia and flaccid paralysis. The differentials include the following:
|Diseases||History and Physical||Diagnostic tests||Other Findings|
|Motor Deficit||Sensory deficit||Cranial nerve Involvement||Autonomic dysfunction||Proximal/Distal/Generalized||Ascending/Descending/Systemic||Unilateral (UL)
or Bilateral (BL)
No Lateralization (NL)
|Onset||Lab or Imaging Findings||Specific test|
|Acute Flaccid Myelitis||+||+||+||-||Proximal > Distal||Ascending||UL/BL||Sudden||MRI (Longitudinal hyperintense lesions)||MRI and CSF PCR for viral etiology||Drooping eyelids
|Adult Botulism||+||-||+||+||Generalized||Descending||BL||Sudden||Toxin test||Blood, Wound, or Stool culture||Diplopia, Hyporeflexia, Hypotonia, possible respiratory paralysis|
|Infant Botulism||+||-||+||+||Generalized||Descending||BL||Sudden||Toxin test||Blood, Wound, or Stool culture||Flaccid paralysis (Floppy baby syndrome), possible respiratory paralysis|
|Guillian-Barre syndrome||+||-||-||-||Generalized||Ascending||BL||Insidious||CSF: ↑Protein
|Clinical & Lumbar Puncture||Progressive ascending paralysis following infection, possible respiratory paralysis|
|Eaton Lambert syndrome||+||-||+||+||Generalized||Systemic||BL||Intermittent||EMG, repetitive nerve stimulation test (RNS)||Voltage gated calcium channel (VGCC) antibody||Diplopia, ptosis, improves with movement (as the day progresses)|
|Myasthenia gravis||+||-||+||+||Generalized||Systemic||BL||Intermittent||EMG, Edrophonium test||Ach receptor antibody||Diplopia, ptosis, worsening with movement (as the day progresses)|
|Electrolyte disturbance||+||+||-||-||Generalized||Systemic||BL||Insidious||Electrolyte panel||↓Ca++, ↓Mg++, ↓K+||Possible arrhythmia|
|Organophosphate toxicity||+||+||-||+||Generalized||Ascending||BL||Sudden||Clinical diagnosis: physical exam & history||Clinical suspicion confirmed with RBC AchE activity||History of exposure to insecticide or living in farming environment. with : Diarrhea, Urination, Miosis, Bradycardia, Lacrimation, Emesis, Salivation, Sweating|
|Tick paralysis (Dermacentor tick)||+||-||-||-||Generalized||Ascending||BL||Insidious||Clinical diagnosis: physical exam & history||-||History of outdoor activity in Northeastern United States. The tick is often still latched to the patient at presentation (often in head and neck area)|
|Tetrodotoxin poisoning||+||-||+||+||Generalized||Systemic||BL||Sudden||Clinical diagnosis: physical exam & dietary history||-||History of consumption of puffer fish species.|
|Stroke||+/-||+/-||+/-||+/-||Generalized||Systemic||UL||Sudden||MRI +ve for ischemia or hemorrhage||MRI||Sudden unilateral motor and sensory deficit in a patient with a history of atherosclerotic risk factors (diabetes, hypertension, smoking) or atrial fibrillation.|
|Poliomyelitis||+||+||+||+/-||Proximal > Distal||Systemic||BL or UL||Sudden||PCR of CSF||Asymmetric paralysis following a flu-like syndrome.|
|Transverse myelitis||+||+||+||+||Proximal > Distal||Systemic||BL or UL||Sudden||MRI & Lumbar puncture||MRI||History of chronic viral or autoimmune disease (e.g. HIV)|
|Neurosyphilis||+||+||-||+/-||Generalized||Systemic||BL||Insidious||MRI & Lumbar puncture||CSF VDRL-specifc
CSF FTA-Ab -sensitive
|History of unprotected sex or multiple sexual partners.|
|Muscular dystrophy||+||-||-||-||Proximal > Distal||Systemic||BL||Insidious||Genetic testing||Muscle biopsy||Progressive proximal lower limb weakness with calf pseudohypertrophy in early childhood. Gower sign positive.|
|Multiple sclerosis exacerbation||+||+||+||+||Generalized||Systemic||NL||Sudden||↑CSF IgG levels
|Clinical assessment and MRI||Blurry vision, urinary incontinence, fatigue|
|Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis||+||-||-||-||Generalized||Systemic||BL||Insidious||Normal LP (to rule out DDx)||MRI & LP||Patient initially presents with upper motor neuron deficit (spasticity) followed by lower motor neuron deficit (flaccidity).|
|Inflammatory myopathy||+||-||-||-||Proximal > Distal||Systemic||UL or BL||Insidious||Elevated CK & Aldolase||Muscle biopsy||Progressive proximal muscle weakness in 3rd to 5th decade of life. With or without skin manifestations.|
Removal of the embedded tick usually results in resolution of symptoms within several hours to days. If the tick is not removed, the toxin can be fatal, with reported mortality rates of 10–12 percent, usually due to respiratory paralysis. The tick is best removed by grasping the tick as close to the skin as possible and applying firm steady pressure.
No vaccine is currently available for any tick-borne disease, except for TBE. Individuals should therefore take precautions when entering tick-infested areas, particularly in the spring and summer months. Preventive measures include avoiding trails that are overgrown with bushy vegetation, wearing light-colored clothes that allow one to see the ticks more easily, and wearing long pants and closed-toe shoes. Tick repellents containing DEET (N,N, diethyl-m-toluamide) are only marginally effective and can be applied to skin or clothing. Rarely, severe reactions can occur in some people who use DEET-containing products. Young children may be especially vulnerable to these adverse effects. Permethrin, which can only be applied to clothing, is much more effective in preventing tick bites. Permethrin is not a repellent but rather an insecticide; it causes ticks to curl up and fall off of the protected clothing.
Although several attempts have been made to isolate and identify the neurotoxin since the first isolation in 1966 the exact structure of the toxin is still unknown. The 40-80 kDa protein fraction contains the toxine.
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