Before you venture outdoors this summer, be sure to protect yourself against ticks. Due to recent unusually warm winters in the U.S., which allowed insects to better survive, tick populations are up — and so is the risk of contracting a nasty tick-borne illness.
In addition to the usual suspects, like Lyme disease, a rarer disease is now causing concern. Over the past 10 years, the Human Powassan virus (or POW virus for short) has infected at least 75 people in the Northeast and Great Lakes region of the U.S. While the disease is rare, the virus it causes can lead to encephalitis, which causes the brain to swell and results in serious neurologic damage. Cases of Powassan virus have also been diagnosed outside of the United States, including in Canada and Russia.
Have researchers uncovered a way to treat and cure the POW virus? Unfortunately there is currently no Powassan virus cure or set treatment for resolving the infection. Symptoms vary considerably from person to person, and in severe cases the virus can be deadly. It’s estimated that about 10–15 percent of people who become infected with the Powassan virus will not survive, due to inflammation of the brain and other complications. (1, 2) Therefore prevention against tick bites is considered the fire-line of defense.
What Is the Powassan Virus?
The Powassan virus is an illness caused from the bite of an infected tick. The Powassan virus can cause flu-like symptoms and may also affect the nervous system, causing encephalitis (inflammation of the brain that is usually due to infection). It originally got its name in 1958 from a small town in Ontario, Canada where it was identified as the cause of a child’s unspecified encephalitis.
Three kinds of ticks carry the POW virus, but it’s the Ixodes scapularis, or deer tick, that most often bites humans and spreads the Powassan virus. The other types of ticks that carry the virus tend to bite rodents, which keeps the virus active. The same deer tick that causes the Powassan virus in humans is also responsible for spreading other diseases, including Lyme disease. The pathogen that causes the POW virus has the genus name Flavivirus. The virus is also related to other illnesses caused by insect bites, including West Nile virus and the St. Louis encephalitis virus.
There have been two types of Powassan viruses identified in humans, referred to as “1 POW virus” and “2 POW virus”. 1 POW virus is believed to be rarer and caused by bites from Ixodes cookei or Ixodes marxi ticks. 2 POW virus is more common (although still very rare) and is associated with Ixodes scapularis tick bites.
Powassan Virus vs. Lyme Disease
- Lyme disease is another type of illness that is usually caused by a deer bite, most often the type called the black-legged tick.
- Ticks can cause Lyme disease to develop in humans and animals due to passing on bacteria known as borrelia burgdorferi.
- Compared to the Powassan virus, Lyme disease is much more common. An estimated 300,000 people in the U.S alone are diagnosed with Lyme disease every year, compared to only about 75 people over a 10 year period who contract the Powassan virus.
- Lyme disease cases are largely concentrated in the Northeast and upper Midwest, which is similar to where bites causing the POW virus usually occur.
- Like the Powassan virus, Lyme disease symptoms vary from person to person. Lyme disease symptoms typically start with a rash and flu-like symptoms, such as fatigue, headaches, muscle and joint pain. Over time, if left untreated, Lyme disease can cause many different types of inflammatory responses and symptoms that are associated with autoimmune diseases.
- Compared to the Powassan virus, there are more Lyme disease treatment options available. The most common conventional Lyme disease treatment utilized today is prescription antibiotics. Other natural remedies for reducing symptoms include eating an anti-inflammatory diet, treating nutrient deficiencies, improving gut health, getting plenty rest and sleep, and managing stress.
Powassan Virus Causes & Risk Factors
Although rare, the Powassan virus can infect anyone, regardless of age, from infants to the elderly. All it takes is a bite from an infected deer tick, which then spreads the virus to “the host” (the animal or person who is bit). (3)
Is the Powassan Virus Contagious?
The good news is that the POW virus is not transmitted directly from person-to-person. In other words, the virus is not contagious, much like Lyme disease or an allergic reaction. The reason the virus isn’t contagious is because even after being bit, humans do not develop very high levels of the pathogen that is responsible for causing the virus in their bloodstream. The CDC states that therefore “Humans are therefore considered to be ‘dead-end’ hosts of the virus.”
Where Do People Contract the Powassan Virus?
Most cases of the POW virus have occurred in the Northeast (New England states) and the Great Lakes region. (4, 5) Since 2008, cases have increased farther afield, appearing in Minnesota and Wisconsin where previously cases were not reported. (6) Between the years 2006 through 2015, cases of the POW virus were reported in eight states within the U.S including: Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin.
Tick bites tend to occur during warmer months of the year when tick populations are highest and people are spending more time outdoors. Research shows that you have the greatest risk for contracting the POW virus during the late spring, early summer, and mid-fall. If you live or work outside for many hours, camp, hike, or spend lots of time near brushy or wooded areas, then you’re at an increased risk for getting bitten by a tick. Not every tick bite will cause a virus or illness, but it’s still best to try to avoid all tick bites as much as possible.
From 2006 to 2015, the following states reported the highest number of Powassan virus cases in the U.S: (07)
- Powassan virus in Minnesota— 20 cases
- Powassan virus in New York— 16 cases
- Powassan virus in Wisconsin—16 cases
- Powassan virus in Massachusetts— 8 cases
- Powassan virus in Virginia, New Jersey, Maine, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire— 1 to 3 cases per state
Signs & Symptoms of Powassan Virus
Some people may not have any powassan virus symptoms, as the infection is usually mild. However, if symptoms do occur, they typically appear from about one week to one month after the bite takes place. The time from when the tick bite happens to when symptoms start to appear is called the “incubation period”. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other sources, powassan virus symptoms may include: (08)
- Vomiting or nausea
- Confusion and memory problems
- Dizziness, instability and loss of coordination
- Difficulty walking and talking
- The most serious complications associated with the POW virus are encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) and meningitis (inflammation of the membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord)
Powassan Virus Diagnoses & Conventional Treatments
If you or a loved one is experiencing any of these symptoms and were recently bitten by a tick, see a doctor. For severe symptoms, call 911 and get emergency help right away.
Your healthcare provider can perform a physical exam and also use several tests in order to make a diagnoses. Tests that are used to diagnose Powassan virus work by detecting antibodies that are made by the immune system in an attempt to fight the virus and eliminate pathogens from the body. This immune response causes inflammation and is tied to many symptoms that the Powassan virus triggers, such as fatigue and weakness.
Unfortunately no vaccines or medications can treat or prevent the POW virus. If symptoms are severe, patients usually require hospitalization and may need respiratory support, intravenous fluids, or medications. These types of treatment can be life-saving because they help to reduce swelling in the brain and prevent other serious complications. Sadly about half of Powassan virus survivors experience permanent neurological damage, resulting in headaches, muscle wasting and memory problems. And about 10 percent of encephalitis cases caused by the Powassan virus result in death. (9)
Powassan Virus Prevention & Recovery
9 Measures You Should Take to Prevent Tick Bites:
The best way to protect yourself and your family members from the Powassan virus— as well as other tick-borne illnesses such as lyme disease—is to prevent tick bites from happening in the first place. You can take these measures below to help protect yourself from insect and tick bites. (10)
- Stay away from wooded or brushy areas. Outdoor areas with high grass are mostly likely to be home to ticks and other harmful insects. This includes forests, woods, thick gardens, trails, beaches or other places where you might be hiking or camping. If you’re pregnant, it’s advised that you avoid high-risk outdoor areas altogether where ticks might be found. It’s best to avoid hiking or camping in tick-populated areas during pregnancy in order to reduce your risk of becoming infected while pregnant or breast-feeding. which can cause serious health problems in the fetus or newborne.
- Cover up exposed skin. If you do go in the woods, make sure you wear pants and long sleeves. Try to wear as much clothing as possible, including higher socks or a hat, in order to decrease the surface area of exposed skin. The more skin that is available for ticks to bite, the higher chance there is for bites to happen.
- Do a tick check after being outdoors. Look over your whole body, including in your hair. If you do find any ticks or other insects that seem suspicious, immediately remove them before they have a chance to bite your skin. If your children or pets were outside with you, also carefully check them for ticks.
- Shower as soon as possible after spending time outdoors. It’s best to shower within two hours of being in a high-risk area, this way you can remove the tick from your skin before it has a chance to bite and infect you.
- Also wash the clothes you were wearing when outdoors in order to kill bugs that may be stuck in your clothing. The CDC recommends washing clothing and any other gear you wear while in high-risk areas with the product called permethrin. Permethin is an anti-parasite and insecticide product that goes by brand names including Nix and Elimite. It’s most commonly used to treat lice or scabies, but is also useful for keeping ticks away. Permethin products are available in many big stores, such as Walmart or online, and can be applied directly to clothes without leaving behind an unpleasant odor or damaging clothing. The active ingredients are capable of remaining active and protective even through several washings. (011)
- Reduce ticks in your yard by mowing the lawn frequently, removing leaves and following other techniques to reduce tick populations. You may also want to consider applying natural pesticides to your lawn or yard if you live in a high-risk area, especially if you have pets that may bring ticks indoors.
- Check your pets for ticks. Ask your veterinarian about products to protect your pets from ticks.
- Be sure to use insect repellent when spending lots of time outside. The CDC and EPA recommend products that contain chemicals such as DEET, picaridin or IR3535. Keep in mind that even if these repellents are strong, they tend to only work for several hours after being applied to bare skin. Reapply whichever type of spray you use every few hours for the most protection.
- There are also natural alternatives for commercial bug sprays available if you want to avoid using chemical sprays on your skin. You can even make your own homemade bug spray using essential oils that naturally deter bugs. Ingredients that repel bugs include witch hazel, apple cider vinegar and essential oils like: eucalyptus, lemongrass, citronella, tea tree or rosemary.
How to Remove a Tick: (12)
- First, be sure to wear gloves to protect yourself from any pathogens the tick may be carrying.
- Using a pair of tweezers or small forceps, grasp the tick firmly near the skin, but do not crush the tick. Gently pull up to remove the tick. Do not twist or turn the tick as this doesn’t make it easier to remove it plus it may cause the head and mouthparts to break off, which can increase the chance of infection.
- Be sure not to crush the tick because it may release pathogens. You may want to keep it in a tightly closed jar or tape it to a piece of paper in case you need to show it to the doctor. Otherwise, flush it down the toilet or the sink.
- There should be a small crater at the site of the bite where the tick embedded its mouthparts.
- Clean the bite area thoroughly with soap and water or a mild disinfectant. You can also apply antibiotic cream to the area, which may help prevent a local infection but will not prevent you from developing a disease transmitted by the tick. Keep an eye on the affected area and see a doctor immediately if a rash or infection appears.
Natural Ways to Improve Recovery
While it isn’t possible to completely cure Powassan virus, there are some steps to take that may help you manage symptoms. These steps can also decrease inflammation and other symptoms if you’ve been bit by insects that are not carrying the POW virus, but can still cause immune system reactions.
- Any time your body is under stress due to an infection or virus, it’s best to eat a “clean, healthy diet in order to reduce inflammation and give your body the energy and nutrients it needs to heal. I recommend consuming a diet low in sugar and processed foods, but high in antioxidants from veggies and fruit. Include healthy fats such as coconut oil or wild-caught fish, and foods with probiotics like yogurt or kefir.
- If you’re dealing with nausea or vomiting, prevent dehydration symptoms by drinking enough water or fluids. You can also stay hydrated by eating foods with a high water content, such as all sorts of fruits and veggies (especially leafy greens, melon, tomatoes, cucumbers, celery, berries, apples, etc.)
- If you’re feeling fatigued or weak, get plenty of sleep. Extra sleep is usually needed to support the body during recovery.
- Try to keep stress under control in order to support your immune system. Try stress relievers including light exercise, yoga, meditation, reading, journaling, exercising, using essential oils and spending time in nature.
- Certain supplements might also help you to feel better. These include: omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins, vitamin D3, magnesium and medicinal mushrooms.
- While they likely won’t do much to get rid of an existing case of the POW virus, herbs that can help kill parasites include wormwood, black walnut, oregano, garlic, bentonite clay, activated charcoal, and grapefruit seed extracts.
Precautions Regarding the Powassan Virus
If you’ve been bitten by any type of tick and notice a rash or other symptoms, visit a doctor right away. While there’s only a very small chance of being infected with the Powassan virus, there’s a higher chance for other illnesses such as Lyme disease. The earlier you seek help, the better. Antibiotics for tick-borne illnesses work best when used right away, so don’t delay getting treatment if needed.
Final Thoughts on the Powassan Virus
- The Human Powassan virus (or POW virus) is a rare but serious illness caused from the bite of an infected tick.
- Symptoms can include flu-like symptoms, fatigue, vomiting and sometimes complications including inflammation of the brain or meningitis.
- There is no cure for the Powassan virus, so prevention is critical. Steps to reduce your risk for tick bites include: high risk areas with tall grass, covering up exposed skin, checking your skin and clothes for ticks, and using insecticide products or bug repellents.
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