Powassan is a rare virus that can cause swelling around your brain and in the membranes around your brain and spinal cord. Even though only 75 cases have been reported in the U.S. over the past decade, it has started to show up on medical radar screens of late because experts are warning the disease could start to spread faster now that it is transmitted by the deer tick. That is the same pest that spreads the ubiquitous-in-the-Northeast Lyme disease. In fact, Powassan spreads even faster than Lyme disease.

The virus has always been spread by ticks, but in the past it was carried by ticks that rarely bit humans, such as the woodchuck tick. Now that it is being carried by the deer tick, all bets are off. The ticks are active mainly in wooded areas within the Northeast during late spring, early summer, and mid-fall.

Unlike deer tick-delivered Lyme disease which takes 24 to 48 hours to spread from insect to human, Powassan will take hold within minutes of the bite. The symptoms – if you get any, not every infection is symptomatic – will usually show up within a week to a month of being bitten. These may include:

  • Seizures
  • Vomiting
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Confusion
  • Memory problems
  • Weakness
  • Difficulty walking and talking

If you have been exposed to ticks and experience any of these, see a doctor or report to an emergency room immediately.

Your doctor will give you a physical examination and question you about the likelihood of you being bitten by a tick. Unfortunately, there is no way to confirm a Powassan diagnosis without analyzing a sample of your blood and/or spinal fluid.

There is currently no known treatment or cure for the Powassan virus. Your doctor's only approach will be to manage the symptoms. This may include medication to relieve cerebral swelling as well as breathing and intravenous feeding apparatus.

All the procedures you use to avoid and prevent Lyme disease will be effective when trying to avoid catching the Powassan virus. These include spraying all the areas of your bare skin with an insect repellent that contains DEET and treating your clothes with permethrin. Be sure to check your body (especially the back of your neck), clothes and pets for ticks, and take a bath or shower after spending time in the woods


Sources: Minnesota Department of Health