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A new tick-borne illness is on the rise. Know what to watch for and how to protect yourself.

Ticks don’t rank high among favorite Pennsylvania wildlife. They can transmit a variety of illnesses in our area, like the common Lyme disease. And in some parts of Pennsylvania, they carry another infection called the Powassan virus. One infectious diseases expert weighs in on this lesser-known infection.

A different type of infection

Powassan virus (also called Powassan disease or deer tick virus) is transmitted through the bite of a deer tick or groundhog tick. In its most severe form, this rare illness can impact the nervous system. And it can come on fast.

“A deer tick can transmit Powassan virus in as little as 15 minutes,” says Dr. Jennifer Vodzak, pediatric infectious diseases doctor at Geisinger. “Compare that to Lyme disease, where transmission can take 24 hours or more.”  

The good news: Most people who get Powassan virus have either mild symptoms or none at all.

If you do develop symptoms, you may start feeling unwell anywhere from one to four weeks after your tick bite.

Mild symptoms of Powassan virus last about a week and may include: 

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Vomiting
  • Tiredness
  • Muscle aches

Most people with mild symptoms recover at home with rest and fluids.

However, a smaller number of infected people may develop more severe symptoms, which can include:

  • Encephalitis (infection and inflammation in the brain)
  • Meningitis (infection and swelling around the brain and spinal cord)
  • Seizures
  • Difficulty speaking
  • Confusion

Testing and treatment

For this relatively less-common infection, testing is done mainly through the CDC and limited to very sick hospitalized patients. Testing at your doctor’s office or ConvenientCare location may not be readily available. For those who develop more serious illness, especially encephalitis or viral meningitis, and need to be hospitalized, testing may be done.

Unlike Lyme disease, which is caused by bacteria, a virus causes Powassan disease. Although Lyme is easily treatable with antibiotics, Powassan isn’t.

“Currently, there’s no treatment available,” says Dr. Vodzak. “So protecting yourself against ticks is critical.”

Prevention is everything

To reduce your risk of getting bitten by a tick, keep these things in mind whenever you and your family spend time outside.

Choose clothes carefully. Wear light-colored long-sleeved shirts and long pants. 

Avoid scented products. Skip the perfume/cologne, body spray, lotion or soap — or choose unscented versions.

Consider timing. Avoid excursions at dusk, when bugs are the most active.

Be mindful of your surroundings. Walk in the center of trails and stay out of high grass or dense brush. Keep away from standing water, too.

Wear bug spray. The type of insect repellant you need depends on your exposure. Look for one that protects against ticks. And for the best protection, choose one with at least 20% DEET. Once you’ve found the right spray for you, be sure to apply it properly. 

Do a pest check. When you come inside, don’t forget to scan yourself for ticks. Juvenile ticks are small and may be hard to see. Look for small hard bumps with several legs. Check kids and pets. Then ask someone to check you.

Shower when you come in. If you do have a tick on you, taking a shower can rinse it off or help you notice it more easily.

Increasing cases but low risk

While cases of the Powassan virus are on the rise, your risk of getting it is still low.

“Less than 1% of all ticks across the state carry it at this time,” Dr. Vodzak says. 

For comparison, about 40% to 50% of deer ticks in Pennsylvania carry the bacteria that causes Lyme. That means you’re more likely to get Lyme disease.

Though ticks carry bacteria and viruses that can make you sick, just because you were bitten by a tick doesn’t mean you’ll be infected. Watch for symptoms in the following days and weeks — if you have any, contact your healthcare provider.

And because ticks can lurk anywhere, in any season and especially as it gets warmer, it’s a good idea to be aware. By practicing a few good habits when you’re outside, you can minimize your and your family’s risk of being bitten. And spend more time enjoying the great outdoors.

Next steps:

Found a tick? Here’s what to do
Heading outside? Don’t forget the bug spray
Meet Jennifer Vodzak, MD