The black-legged deer tick is a transmitter of the Powassan virus. (Photo: Tom Myers/National Pest Management Association)
Word to the wise, Northeast-dwellers: There’s another tickborne illness besides Lyme to be aware of.
Ticks in Connecticut have been found to have Powassan (pronounced poe-ah-suhn) virus, CBS reported. The virus, which was first discovered in 1958 in the town of Powassan, is extremely rare, with only about 50 reported cases over the last decade, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
However, reported cases of the virus have increased over the last few years, notes Jorge Parada, MD, medical advisor for the National Pest Management Association (NPMA) from Loyola University. CDC data show that while there may have only been an average of two or three cases a year from 2004 to 2008, that jumped to an average of nine cases per year from 2009 to 2013, Parada notes. And that’s only reported cases, where the people were likely so sick that they had to seek medical care — the actual prevalence is likely much higher, with serological testing showing that 1 to 4 percent of the population may have been infected with Powassan virus at some point.
While comparisons are often drawn between Powassan and Lyme because the two are spread by the same kind of tick (the black-legged deer tick, though Powassan can also be spread by other kinds of ticks), the two conditions are not identical. Lyme is a bacterial illness, for instance, and can be treated with antibiotics, while Powassan is a flavivirus, a genus of virus that also causes West Nile virus and dengue fever. There is also no cure for Powassan — the best doctors can do is give you supportive care, Parada notes.
Lyme is also slightly harder to transmit from tick to human than Powassan; with Lyme, ticks have to be feeding on the body for at least 24 hours before it can transmit the illness. With Powassan, a tick only need feed on you for one to two hours — possibly as short as 15 minutes — before transmitting the virus to you.
Symptoms of Powassan can vary, with some experiencing no symptoms or mild symptoms, and others experiencing severe symptoms and even death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“With the more benign forms of the disease, [the symptoms] are very much nonspecific — you might have a fever, some headache, some vomiting, confusion,” Parada tells Yahoo Health. But as the virus affects the brain more, “you may get more confused, memory loss, seizures, and you can even die from it if you develop encephalitis,” which is an infection of the brain.
Unfortunately, because there have been so few cases of the illness, it’s hard to definitively say who might be more at risk for developing the severe symptoms of the virus, he adds.
To prevent contracting Powassan, make sure to be on your guard against ticks, Parada advises. “What’s better than a cure is don’t catch it,” he says. “”So even when the weather’s good and you want to go out and hike in shorts, the truth is, long pants and tucking your pants into your socks will protect you from tick bites,” he says. Insect repellants also helps guard against ticks (20 percent DEET at the minimum), and if you’re out hiking, make sure to stay away from vegetation.