Boy's severe reaction to tick bite was 'rare case'

A five-year-old Mullumbimby boy suffered anaphylaxis after a tick bite.
A five-year-old Mullumbimby boy suffered anaphylaxis after a tick bite. Photo: Contributed

A MULLUMBIMBY boy who nearly died from anaphylaxis caused by a tick bite is a rare case, a leading allergy specialist has said.

Billy Fetherston's tick-induced anaphylaxis was exceptionally unique because the reaction had escalated since a previous bite, according to Sheryl van Nunen - a senior staff specialist in the Department of Clinical Immunology and Allergy at Sydney's Royal North Shore Hospital.

"Only a minority have a reaction the next time. But it is possible and therefore, if you've had a really bad reaction you don't have a lot of room to move," Dr van Nunen said.

Dr van Nunen, who also sits on the committee for Tick-Induced Allergy Research and Awareness (TIARA), said tick-induced anaphylaxis is the least common and one of the most harmful reactions to tick bites.

Since September 2011, Dr van Nunen said she has seen about 185 patients who have suffered tick anaphylaxis from her area in the Northern Beaches of Sydney. Some of which she said have come to see her from the Northern Rivers.

Between 1997-2013, Australian Bureau of Statistics data recorded 41 fatalities from insect stings or tick bites.

Specifically, Dr van Nunen said there have been four known fatalities from tick anaphylaxis.

She said those who have died in Australia from tick anaphylaxis were "all in reasonable health" and stressed the dangerous reaction can be fatal.


Paralysis tick
Paralysis tick Contributed

Tick anaphylaxis remains "a peculiarly Australian problem", Dr van Nunen said and cited only 19 reports of the reaction internationally.

She said the severity of the reaction in most cases warrants that people are armed with the right steps to prevent a reaction.

"This really is something that comes down to educating people because these are totally avoidable allergies in my view," Dr van Nunen said.

Dr van Nunen said her own research coupled with that from Mona Vale Hospital proves not disturbing the tick is crucial to avoid an anaphylaxis.

"Anaphylaxis only happens when you pull the tick out or disturb the tick," she said.

She said there have been no reports of baby ticks, known as Nymph or larvae, linked to causing anaphylaxis.

At the end of the day, Dr van Nunen said whether we are exploring or working in the great outdoors, we're entering the tick's domain.

"It's their territory and we have to learn to live with it," she said.

Dressing for the occasion Dr van Nunen said was among the best strategies to avoid a tick bite. Using insect repellents as well as wearing long sleeve shirts and pants fitted at the wrists and ankles are a good way to keep ticks off, she said.

Treat or maintain your backyard by mowing grass, or fencing off areas connecting into bushland were other approaches Dr van Nunen suggested to prevent exposure to ticks.

Dr van Nunen's seven tips minimise the risk of allergic reactions from ticks:

  • Don't scratch anything you can't see because it could be a tick
  • Do not disturb a tick as it would squirt allergen into you
  • Kill the tick where it is by using a freezing spray called Wart-Off. Five sprays from a distance of about half a centimetre should kill the tick, she said.
  • For little ticks (larvae and nymphs) on those aged under four-years-old, use Lyclear and "dab it. don't grab it!"
  • For adult ticks, freeze it, don't squeeze it!
  • Remember household tweezers are tick squeezers, this pushes the allergen into the body that triggers a possible allergic reactions. 
  • If you have had a tick anaphylaxis do not do not touch the tick, call 000 or go to the nearest Emergency Department and have the tick killed there.

Topics:  editors picks mullumbimby northern rivers community northern rivers health tick

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