What Is Tick Paralysis?

Medically Reviewed by Sabrina Felson, MD on August 07, 2022
4 min read

Tick paralysis is a disease that causes tingling and numbness all over the body in people bitten by ticks. The numbness can lead to weakness.

While the symptoms can be alarming, treatment is simple: remove the tick, and you’ll usually feel better in a couple of hours.
Tick paralysis isn’t common, but you should take it seriously because in very rare cases, if untreated, the disease can affect your lungs and make it hard to breathe. That can be fatal.

In the U.S., tick paralysis is most common in the Pacific Northwest, the Rocky Mountain states, and the Southeastern part of the country. The American dog tick, Rocky Mountain wood tick, and dermacentor ticks are most likely to cause tick paralysis. But 40 kinds of ticks can cause tick paralysis, and the symptoms depend on the species of tick that bit you.

Tick paralysis can affect anyone, but it's most often found in children under age 8 years.

When you’re bitten by a tick and it hangs onto you for several days, it can release a neurotoxin through its saliva. Experts don’t completely understand how, but the neurotoxin messes with your nervous system.

Tick paralysis usually starts with numbness or tingling in your legs. You may also have muscle pain and feel tired and irritable. If your child has it, you may notice that they are walking in an odd way, as if drunk.

From there, the numbness moves up your body and is followed by paralysis that starts in your feet and moves upward. It can just affect one side of you, but that’s less common. It then spreads to the arms and possibly lungs. You may also feel tired and irritable and have muscle pain.

While tick paralysis is rarely fatal, it’s an emergency if it weakens your diaphragm and makes it hard to breathe.

Tick paralysis symptoms are very close to those of Guillain-Barre syndrome (GBS), which is when the body’s immune system affects nerves, leading to paralysis.

The first step is if you find one or more ticks attached to your body, or where a tick has recently bitten you.

Ticks can bite anywhere, but the most common spots are on your scalp, especially at the hairline on your neck. Ticks also often attach to the armpit, between fingers and toes, or around the genitals and rectum.

Your doctor may ask if you’ve been in the woods lately or, if you have a dog, if your dog has been in areas prone to ticks. Dogs can bring ticks into your home, which then attach to you.

If the tick has already fallen off, look for a red bump, which is your body’s reaction to the saliva. Make sure all of the tick is gone. If the tick’s body has already fallen off but the head or parts of its mouth are still attached to your body, it could still be releasing the poison that causes the paralysis.

The treatment is easy. Once the tick is removed -- the entire tick, including the head and all parts of its mouth -- you’ll get rid of what’s causing the symptoms, and you should feel better quickly.

You can remove ticks by using tweezers to grasp the tick as close to your skin as possible. Pull the tick out in a slow but steady upward motion. Don't handle the tick with bare hands when it’s out of your body, and clean your hands and the bite site afterward.

If the tick paralysis affects your breathing, your doctor may have you use a breathing machine until the symptoms ease. If you have trouble breathing, call 911 or go to the ER immediately.

The only way to prevent tick paralysis is to prevent tick bites. To do that, follow these tips.

Avoid tick-heavy areas, like woods and grassy areas. When you are hiking or exploring, stick to the middle of trails.

Use tick-deterring bug sprays. Check labels for DEET, picaridin, IR3535, oil of lemon, eucalyptus, para-menthane-diol, or 2-undecanon. Ask your pediatrician to recommend a safe option for your children.

Treat your outdoor clothes and gear with products that have the insecticide permethrin, which deters ticks from attaching themselves to your stuff.

Do full-body tick checks after every outdoor adventure. Take special care to look under your arms, in and around your ears, inside the belly button, the backs of your knees, in and around your head, hair, and body hair, between your legs, and around your waist. Check your kids and dogs for ticks, too.