What You Need to Know About Powassan Virus

A little-known virus is making the headlines recently and though it is very rare, it can be life threatening.  Lyme disease is the most commonly known disease spread by ticks. Powassan virus is also spread in the same manner. In the last 10 years, there have only been 75 cases reported in the United States according to the Centers for Disease Control. Most of these cases have been in the Northeast area of the country and the Great Lakes. Warmer weather brings an increased number of ticks and an increased frequency of tick-borne illnesses.

Powassan virus comes from the bite of a tick and can’t be spread from person to person. Not everyone bitten by an infected tick will have symptoms.

Symptoms can range from mild to severe in those who do become sick, appearing between 7 to 30 days from the time the bite occurs. Some symptoms to look out for are:

  • Weakness
  • Confusion
  • Fever
  • Vomiting
  • Headache
  • Difficulty Speaking
  • Seizures
  • Issues with Coordination

Permanent neurological symptoms affect about 50% of people with the disease, including muscle loss, memory issues, and chronic headaches. It may also cause encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) and meningitis (inflammation of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord). Around 10% of those suffering from encephalitis due to Powassan virus do not survive.

Respiratory therapies, IV fluids, and medication are usually prescribed if there is swelling on or around the brain. Currently, patients are treated only for the symptoms as there is no medication to treat the virus.

Prevention is important since there is no vaccine or treatment for the virus. The Centers for Disease Control makes the following recommendations:

  • Avoid high grass and piles of leaves
  • Walk in the middle of the trail when hiking
  • Use repellent with 20% or more DEET, picaridin or IR3535 on exposed skin
  • Treat clothing and gear with products that contain permethrin
  • Shower or bathe as soon as possible after coming inside to wash off ticks and find any before they bite
  • Do a full-body tick check with a mirror as soon as you come inside from tick-infested areas
  • Tumble clothes on high heat for 10 minutes to kill ticks when you come indoors
  • Treat dogs for ticks to protect them and keep them from bringing ticks into your home