Bad Tick Summer: Beware Powassan Virus

deer tick

After the mild winter of 2016 in many regions, some experts are predicting a longer and more severe tick season this summer. Warm winters are easy on mice and deer, the animals that ticks typically infest. A greater number of ticks survived the mild winter, and an early spring awakened dormant insects sooner.

There is concern this will trigger an increase in tick-borne illnesses. Researchers are especially worried about an uptick in Lyme disease and the Powassan virus, a rare condition that can cause brain inflammation.

While you have heard of Lyme disease—there were more than 28,000 cases in 2015, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—the Powassan virus is still rare. Only 75 cases have been reported over the last 10 years in the United States according to the CDC. But with the predicted heavy tick summer, conditions are ripe for an increase.

Like Lyme disease, Powassan is carried by white-footed mice (also known as wood mice) and transmitted to humans via deer tick bites. It’s more prevalent in the Northeast and Great Lakes regions, just like Lyme disease.

Powassan’s transmission to humans is quicker than Lyme and tends to be more fatal. Many people bitten by Powassan-infected ticks do not develop obvious or immediate symptoms. Others may experience flu-like symptoms, a mild rash, fever and headache.

In extreme cases, the virus can affect the central nervous system and lead to encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) and meningitis (inflammation of the membranes the surround the brain and spinal cord), causing symptoms such as fever, headache, vomiting, weakness, confusion, loss of coordination, speech difficulties, seizures and loss of consciousness. These begin appearing a week to one month after being infected. Currently, there aren’t any medications to treat Powassan or vaccines to prevent it.

Most of you are going to spend time in the woods and fields over the next couple of months, working land, scouting, setting/checking trail cameras… Here are some tips to protect from a tick-borne illness like Powassan or Lyme.

Dress in long sleeves and long pants and wear socks (no flip-flops!). Use permethrin as an insecticide and spray it on your clothing and boots. I wear calf-high snake boots and tuck my pant legs inside.

Apply insect repellent to your skin. Generally, products with DEET and picaridin are most effective.

Outside, try to avoid walking through heavy brush and piles of leaves where gaggles of ticks and larvae concentrate.

Immediately after arriving home, strip and run your clothes through a hot dryer for 10 minutes. Take a hot shower and scan your body for ticks.

If you find one embedded, the safest way to remove it is to grip the tick with tweezers as close to your skin as possible and pull. After a tick is removed, monitor the bite site, and call your doctor if you experience deep redness, a bulls-eye rash or other unusual characteristics. Don’t take any chances with tick bites!

Are the ticks bad this year in your neck of the woods? Lots of ticks here in central Virginia, but I’ve seen worse.

Illustration Source: Tick Encounter Resource Center  

2 thoughts on “Bad Tick Summer: Beware Powassan Virus

  1. When I was a young man roaming the hill country of Texas I found ticks on me every time I went out. I found that wearing knee high white socks with boots most effective. I’d tuck my jeans inside the tops of the extra long socks. That way I could check the socks often and get the ticks off before they got on my jeans and I could not see them. Looked a little strange but it worked.

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