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What is the Powassan virus and how to protect yourself

The Connecticut Department of Public Health said Tuesday that two Connecticut residents have tested positive for Powassan virus infection.


As the first cases of Powassen virus infection are reported in Connecticut, it’s important to know exactly what the virus is and how to prevent infection.  

The Powassan virus is the result of a bite from an infected black legged tick. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the virus is rare, it also reports the number of cases has increased in recent years. 

Infectious disease specialist and medical advisor for the National Pest Management association Dr. Jorge Parada says this increase in numbers can be attributed to detection bias, but it is best to be careful.

According to the CDC, most cases of Powassen virus in the U.S. occur in the northeast and Great Lakes regions from late spring through mid-fall, which is when ticks are most active.

What are the symptoms?

Initial symptoms emerge between the first week to the first month after a tick bite. These may include fever, headache, vomiting, and general weakness.

The virus can cause severe diseases such as encephalitis, infection of the brain, or meningitis which affects the membranes around the brain and spinal cord. Additionally, many patients with a severe outcome from the infection are hospitalized to be put on oxygen, monitored for hydration, and reduce brain swelling.

The CDC says symptoms of severe disease include confusion, loss of coordination, difficulty speaking, and seizures. 

Parada says most cases of Powassen virus involve milder symptoms and often go undetected. Of the detected cases, the CDC reports that 1 in 10 cases of severe disease are fatal. Parada says medical professionals often only detect the worst cases. 

Survivors of severe disease then experience long-term health problems, such as recurring headaches, loss of muscle mass and strength and memory problems.

RELATED: First cases of Powassan infection reported: DPH

How is the virus treated?

There is no documented treatment or medication for the Powassan virus. 

Symptoms of Powassen virus, like headaches, soreness and stiffness, weakness and meningitis can be confused with later stages of Lyme, another tick-borne disease. 

"Powassen virus can be transmitted in as little as 15 minutes of feeding. So if you're out for a four-hour hike, that tick can feed and transmit the infection. You haven't had a chance to remove the tick," Parada said. "This is very different from Lyme, where it takes generally 36 to 48 hours for the infection to be transmitted."

Parada advises anyone with these symptoms who has been in tick-prone areas to contact their medical advisor for testing and to decide the next steps.

How do you protect yourself?

Both Parada and the CDC recommend that the best method of treatment is prevention.

To prevent contracting the Powassen virus, you must prevent tick bites. The best methods for avoiding ticks include knowing where to expect them outdoors, treating your clothes and yard with repellent and doing thorough tick checks on yourself and your pets after being outdoors.

Ticks are commonly found in grassy, brushy, wooded areas. Outdoor activities like hiking, camping and gardening may put you in closer contact with ticks, but they can be found right in your own backyard.  

The CDC advises protecting yourself by treating your clothes with products containing 0.5% permethrin, which acts as a tick repellent. 

The CDC says EPA-registered repellents also help with tick prevention, and the EPA website helps identify repellents that work best for you. 

Parada recommends products that contain 20% DEET but advises caution in using DEET on children. 

"Children's bodies' surface area to their height and weight is greater, so they have a bigger surface to absorb the DEET. They also have thinner skin so they can absorb it more. And if you absorb large quantities of DEET, it can be neurotoxic," Parada said.

You can also take steps to protect your yard from ticks using similar repellents and pesticides. The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station created a tick management handbook to aid in tick prevention. Some of their tips include consistently mowing your lawn, removing leaf litter, and clearing tall grasses and brush from around your home.  

In addition to treating your clothing, long sleeves and long pants help reduce the area of skin exposed to ticks while outdoors.

"Wear long sleeve shirts, wear long pants, tuck your pants inside your socks, etcetera. Wear lighter clothing, because apparently, it's not that the ticks don't like dark versus light clothing, it's just much easier to spot ticks on light clothing. And if they're on your clothes, that gives you a heads up, you better do a good tick inspection when you get back," Parada said. 

After returning home from being outside, the CDC recommends doing a thorough tick check, examining your clothing, skin, hair and any items brought outside. 

An adult black legged tick is about two times the size of a poppy seed, Parada said.

Checking pets for ticks is important as well, and they can be further protected by using tick collars. While tick bites aren’t contagious, a tick can migrate from your pet to you if not found and removed immediately. 

RELATED: Blumenthal seeks $20 million to tackle ticks in CT

After doing a thorough tick check, take a shower once you come indoors. The CDC says showering within two hours of coming indoors has been shown to reduce the risk of getting Lyme disease and may be helpful in preventing other tick-borne illnesses.  

Taking a shower also provides a great opportunity to check your body for ticks. Common areas where ticks are found include under the arms, in and around the ears, inside the belly button, back of the knees, in and around the hair, between the legs and around the waist. If you have or are working with children, ensure they perform tick checks after being outside. 

Remember to be mindful as you enjoy outdoor activities this summer. Take the necessary precautions against tick bites to prevent Powassen virus infection and other tick-borne illnesses.


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