Garry and Suzy Fetherston were racing to the hospital as quickly as they could. In the backseat, their 5-year-old son, Billy, was getting steadily worse.

Garry Fetherston

As Kidspot reported, the family from Mullumbimby, Australia, was in the car, ready for a fun day out, when Billy started coughing and scratching his head. About 25 minutes into the drive, things had gotten bad enough they pulled over to take a closer look.

Though Billy had been fine just 10 minutes earlier, he had now broken out in a rash of white spots all over his neck. Garry told Yahoo7 his parental instincts warned him this was an emergency:

“I just looked at it and went ‘that’s not good’ and then something clicked in me and I just knew we had to get to hospital.”

Unfortunately, they were a long way from help. As Garry told the Northern Star:

“We were in the middle of nowhere, it was quite a long way from a hospital and he was going into anaphylactic shock.”

He added:

“Every time I looked in the rear-view mirror he looked like … we were losing him.”

As the panicked parents sped toward the hospital, Billy struggled to breathe. His father told Yahoo7 they were afraid he might not make it:

“His airways must have been swollen — you could see the swelling around his throat. His face was going extremely red — you could see the red and white contrast in his face a lot with the white dots. Then his eyes started rolling back in his head and I thought ‘I’m going to watch my son die here.'”

When they finally reached Murwillumbah Hospital after a 20-minute drive, Billy was in a critical state. Doctors told his parents the boy’s life was in danger and worked quickly to stabilize him.

As their son cried and screamed in the emergency room, the parents tried to stay brave for his sake. Suzy told the Northern Star:

“[Garry and I] kept it together because you’ve got to be strong for your child who is sitting there looking at you for comfort.”

A reference from Suzy about a tick bite that had caused a reaction in Billy earlier that year helped the medical staff figure out what was happening. They immediately started looking for a tick on the young boy and finally found it on the top of his head (where the reaction had started).

The last time Billy had been bitten by a tick, his face had swelled temporarily, then returned to normal. This time, a tick bite sent him into anaphylactic shock. After a few hours in the hospital, Billy recovered and went home. He now carries an EpiPen in case he is bitten again.

Reports of ticks causing illness or an allergy to red meat have raised awareness of the dangers of tick bites. However, an allergic reaction to the tick bite itself is possible, though rare.

While significantly more common in Australia, the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) reported on a case of an anaphylactic response to a tick bite from a California man. The NEJM report concluded that even in America, certain ticks may carry allergens that can affect vulnerable people:

Our results indicate that ticks may elicit powerful immune responses in susceptible hosts and that they may be responsible for life-threatening allergic reactions in addition to transmitting infectious disease.

According to Dr. Sheryl van Nunen, who sits on a committee for Australia’s Tick-Induced Allergy Research and Awareness, the best strategy for avoiding tick allergies is prevention. This includes wearing protective clothing, using insect repellent, and maintaining property to discourage ticks.

If one is in danger of an anaphylactic reaction to a tick bite, van Nunen recommends getting immediate medical help and not trying to remove or disturb the tick. As she told the Northern Star:

“Anaphylaxis only happens when you pull the tick out or disturb the tick.”

At the Fetherston home, Billy’s parents are planning to minimize any chance their son might encounter another tick, especially after his close call. Garry told the Northern Star: “In the back of our minds, [we thought] he really could have not made it to five.”

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