While ticks are well-known for transmitting Lyme Disease, there is another tick-borne illness that has been making headlines this year: Powassan virus.
Healthy ticks contract the virus by taking blood meals from small rodents that are infected. After the blood meal is taken, the virus stays with the tick and spreads during its next bloodmeal. This could mean the tick infects the next rodent it feeds on, or as the ticks matures and looks for larger animal hosts, this could result in an infected tick spreading the virus to humans.
Humans are considered a “dead-end host” for this virus, meaning that an infected human cannot infect other ticks that might feed on them. It also means that infected humans cannot spread this disease to other humans through contact.
Powassan virus is still quite rare throughout the United States, with less than 50 cases reported annually. However, the CDC reports that case numbers have increased, likely contributing to the recent media hype. Most reported cases have occured in the Northeast and Great Lakes regions. The risk for contracting Powassan virus (or any tick-borne illness) is most prominent between late spring and early fall, when ticks are most active.
People who work outside or spend a significant amount of time outdoors and near tick-harboring sites are most at-risk for contracting Powassan virus. Individuals with compromised or weakened immune systems are at the highest risk of developing severe symptoms of the virus.
Because most people never develop symptoms, it can be dificult to know you contracted the virus. For those that do display symptoms, it can take between one week and one month after exposure for symptoms to appear. Symptoms include:
In rare instances Powassan virus can cause severe disease, including encephalitis or meningitis. Because antibiotics don't treat viruses, there is no medicinal remedy to treat the virus.