Powassan Disease

Powassan Disease & Ticks in New England

A virus transmitted by black-legged – also known as deer ticks, squirrel, and woodchuck ticks, Powassan virus disease, or POW, is especially prevalent in New England and the Great Lakes regions of the United States. The host ticks are active during late spring, early summer, and mid-fall, particularly in wooded or grassy areas. In the past decade, approximately 60 cases of POW have been documented in the U.S., which makes the tick-borne illness a relatively infrequent danger. However, incidence rates of the disease have been increasing, and it remains a serious problem, as about 10 percent of cases prove fatal.

Symptoms of Powassan Disease

The development of Powassan disease symptoms can occur anywhere from a week to a month after the initial bite of an infected tick, if at all. Infected people may not experience all possible symptoms, and the severity of the disease depends entirely on which indicators appear.

Symptoms of POW may include:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Vomiting
  • Weakness
  • Confusion
  • Loss of coordination
  • Difficulty speaking
  • Seizures
  • Memory loss
  • Encephalitis
  • Meningitis

In nearly half of all documented cases, infected individuals experience long-term neurological damage and retain permanent symptoms like recurring headaches, muscle deterioration, and memory problems.

Treatment of Powassan Disease

Despite the serious nature of the virus, no vaccines or guaranteed treatments exist. Healthcare providers must deduce the presence of POW based on the symptoms of the patient and the results of underdeveloped blood and spinal fluid tests designed to detect antibodies of Powassan. If the virus is suspected, the most common form of treatment includes a combination of hospitalization, respiratory support, and intravenous fluids.

Prevention of Powassan Disease

Given the potential severity of Powassan virus disease, reducing exposure to ticks is important for prevention. Spending time in tall grass or wooded areas puts individuals at risk for contracting POW and other tick-borne afflictions. Conversely, walking in the center of cleared trails and using repellents on exposed skin and clothing are effective preventative measures. Individuals should also examine gear, pets, and their own bodies for ticks after spending time outdoors. Putting clothes in the dryer on the highest heat setting and showering soon after coming indoors may also facilitate the elimination and removal of any residual ticks.

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