Powassan Virus Symptoms to Know After Connecticut Woman Dies From Tickborne Illness

Experts stress the importance of preventing tick bites, regardless of the type of germ they may be carrying.

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Fact checked on June 10, 2022 by Vivianna Shields, a journalist and fact-checker with experience in health and wellness publishing.

A Connecticut woman has died after being infected with Powassan virus, a tickborne pathogen that has been on the rise in the U.S. in recent years. It's the state's second reported case of Powassan virus in 2022, the Connecticut State Department of Health said on Tuesday.

The woman, who was in her 90s, fell ill in early May and was admitted to the hospital shortly after with fever, chest pain, and nausea, among other symptoms. Her condition worsened, and the woman died on May 17.

Powassan virus infections are not unique to the state. Most cases occur in the Northeastern and Great Lakes regions of the country, usually from late spring to mid-autumn, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). While the severity of illness can vary, about one in 10 cases of severe illness are fatal, and about half of survivors experience long-term health problems.

Still, Powassan virus infections are much less common than other serious tickborne illnesses, like anaplasmosis, a bacterial disease. "It's not the one we worry about the most, even though it's the most lethal," Ulysses Shawdee Wu, MD, system director of infectious diseases at Hartford HealthCare, told Health. The important point is to use tick-preventative measures for all tickborne diseases, he said.

Here's what to know about Powassan virus infection and its symptoms.

What Is Powassan Virus?

Powassan virus belongs to a group of viruses that can cause an infection of the brain (encephalitis) or an infection of the membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord (meningitis), according to the CDC.

"It's a central nervous system infection. It's actually called Powassan encephalitis," Dr. Wu explained.

Some people's immune systems clear the virus before they experience symptoms, while others clear it after symptoms surface, Dr. Wu explained. Ninety percent of people who get Powassan virus disease will recover, although they may experience complications, he said.

How Do You Get Powassan Virus?

Humans are typically infected by tick bites. The three types of ticks that can infect humans are:

  • Groundhog ticks (Ixodes cookei)
  • Squirrel ticks (Ixodes marxi)
  • Blacklegged ticks, also known as deer ticks (Ixodes scapularis)

In rare instances, the virus spreads from person-to-person via blood transfusion. Those diagnosed with Powassan virus should not donate blood or bone marrow for 120 days after infection, the CDC advises.

Who's at Risk?

While Powassan cases are still relatively uncommon, the number of recorded infections has swelled. The CDC is reporting between 20 and 39 cases per year since 2016. That's up from 6 to 12 per year from 2011 to 2015.

Whether that's due to better tracking or more cases, it's certainly growing, and Dr. Wu said climate change is a contributing factor.

Anyone living or working or spending recreational time in grassy, bushy, or wooded areas may be exposed to ticks that transmit the virus.

Symptoms of Powassan Virus

Many people have no symptoms after a tick bite, so it's possible they may not know they are infected. If and when symptoms arise however, they usually show up within one week to one month after a tick bite.

Early symptoms may include:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Vomiting
  • Weakness

In severe cases, the disease can cause:

  • Confusion
  • Loss of coordination
  • Difficulty speaking
  • Seizures

Powassan virus infection is diagnosed by signs and symptoms, possible exposure to ticks that spread the virus, and lab testing.

According to the Connecticut State Department of Health, a CDC laboratory in Fort Collins, Colorado, performed testing that confirmed the presence of antibodies to the virus in the female who died last month. In that case, a tick had been removed two weeks before the onset of symptoms. The patient was admitted to a local hospital with fever, altered mental state, headache, chills, severe shivering, chest pain, and nausea.

The department confirmed the state's first Powassan case of the year in May. A Windham County male in his 50s fell ill in late March, was hospitalized with a central nervous system disease, and had a known tick bite. He was discharged from the hospital and has recovered at home.

"When we test ticks from our region for different pathogens, we find that they are most likely to be infected with Lyme disease-causing bacteria and least likely to be infected with POWV," Neeta Pardanani Connally, PhD, MSPH, professor of biology and director of the Tickborne Disease Prevention Laboratory at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury, told Health in an email.

"In other words, the prevalence of POWV in ticks is relatively low compared to other disease-causing agents," she said.

How to Protect Yourself from Powassan Virus

There are no specific medicines approved to treat Powassan virus disease, the CDC points out. When people are hospitalized with severe disease, they receive supportive care to help them breathe, stay hydrated, and reduce brain swelling.

According to Connally, scientific studies suggest that the virus can be transmitted after only being attached for 15 minutes, which means prevention is key.

People living and recreating in areas where ticks live should take preventive measures every time they go outdoors. Connally suggested applying an EPA-registered tick repellent, performing regular tick checks, and bathing shortly after coming indoors, in order to protect yourself as much as possible against Powassan virus and other tickborne diseases. "The key is to avoid tick bites in the first place," Connally said. "We want people to be thinking about prevention before they experience a tickborne illness."

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