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What is Powassan virus? Symptoms and treatment of the tick-borne disease

The virus can cause infection of the brain and there are no specific medicines to treat it.
While there are dozens of types of ticks, the biggest concern is with deer ticks, which can carry diseases like Lyme and the Powassan virus.
While there are dozens of types of ticks, the biggest concern is with deer ticks, which can carry diseases like Lyme and the Powassan virus.Graham J. Hickling, PhD Associate Professor, The Center for Wildlife Health University of Tennessee
/ Source: TODAY

Health officials in New York are urging residents to protect themselves from tick bites after reporting the first death from Powassan virus in the state this year. The serious illness is spread by the deer tick, the same pest that transmits Lyme disease.

The unnamed victim, who lived in Gardiner, New York, and had “additional underlying health conditions,” passed away earlier this week, the Ulster County Department of Health announced Thursday.

“We send our heartfelt condolences to the family and friends of our neighbor who passed away. Although exceedingly rare, the Powassan virus and other tick-borne diseases are a serious threat,” said Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan in a statement.

“It is imperative that all residents take every precaution necessary against tick-borne illnesses, especially during outdoor activities. Residents should vigilantly check themselves and their pets for ticks and tick bites,” added Dr. Carol M. Smith, Ulster County commissioner of health and mental health.

Still, she described the risk of getting Powassan as “exceedingly low.”

What is Powassan virus?

The virus can cause infection of the brain or the membranes around the brain and spinal cord, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

There are no vaccines to prevent Powassan virus disease and no specific medicines to treat it. Patients usually have to be hospitalized to get help with breathing, staying hydrated and reducing swelling in the brain, the CDC noted.

There were 21 cases of Powassan virus disease reported in the U.S. last year, with most occurring in the Northeast and Great Lakes regions from late spring through mid-fall when ticks are most active.

Last week, a case was announced in Maine, and two cases were confirmed in New Jersey in June.

It’s possible many more people become infected, but aren’t included in the statistics because their symptoms are mild, experts said.

The virus can be transmitted from the tick to a human in as little as 15 minutes, compared to 24 hours for the Lyme bacterium, said Dr. Jennifer Lyons, chief of the division of neurological and inflammatory diseases at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital and an assistant professor of neurology at the Harvard Medical School in Boston. She feared the number of cases could explode over the next few years.

“The bottom line is that we should be very scared of it because nobody is safe from it,” Lyons told TODAY.

What are the symptoms?

Many people don’t have any symptoms. Those who do develop them anywhere from one week to one month after being bitten by a tick. The warning signs include:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Vomiting
  • Weakness

When the disease progresses to its severe form, symptoms can include:

  • Confusion
  • Loss of coordination
  • Difficulty speaking
  • Seizures

Smith urged anyone who has been bitten by a tick and experiencing any of these symptoms to see a doctor as soon as possible.

Powassan virus disease cases reported by state
This map shows Powassan virus disease cases reported by state, 2009-2018.Courtesy ArboNET, Arboviral Diseases Branch, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

What is the outlook for patients?

About 10% of people who develop a severe form of the disease die, the CDC noted. About half of those who survive develop long-term health problems such as recurring headaches, memory problems and loss of muscle mass.

How to prevent tick bites:

  • When outdoors, walk in the center of trails, and avoid grassy, brushy or wooded areas.
  • Wear light-colored clothing to spot ticks easily, and tuck pants into socks.
  • Use insect repellents containing DEET for skin and Permethrin for clothing and shoes.
  • Shower as soon as possible after coming inside.
  • Check people and pets frequently and at the end of the day, and remove any ticks right away.