Powassan Virus Is on the Rise This Tick Season

tick in garden

Robert Körner / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Powassan virus is becoming more common in tick-infested areas of the country. 
  • The disease is rare, but in severe cases, the fatality rate is 10%.
  • Taking precautions against tick bites by spraying insecticides and wearing long clothing is the best way to protect yourself.

Two Americans have died this spring from Powassan virus, a deadly tick-borne disease that has become much more prevalent in this century. Only 27 cases were identified worldwide in the second half of the 20th century. In 2019, there were 43 cases identified just in the United States.

While the fatalities occurred in Connecticut and Maine, experts are encouraging people to be vigilant against ticks in multiple regions around the country.

“Springtime is one of the highest risk times for acquiring tick-borne infections in the northeast, including the New York/New Jersey area, as well as the upper midwest," Scott Weisenberg, MD, an infectious diseases expert with NYU Langone Health, told Verywell.

Powassan Virus: a Deadly Complication From Tick Bites

While rates of Powassan virus are generally low, severe disease (which results in meningitis or encephalitis) has a 10% fatality rate.

“Somewhere between 3-5% of the adult ticks have Powassan virus,” Chris L. Fuentes, mosquito and tick expert and co-founder of Ranger Ready Repellents, told Verywell. Comparatively, up to 50% of ticks in your area could be carrying Lyme disease.

“Powassan virus causes neurologic diseases, including encephalitis or meningitis,” said Weisenberg. “Fortunately, those are still very rare, but do seem to be showing up in new areas. There’s certainly a lot of concern because of the morbidity associated with having a brain infection.”

While the risks of getting the Powassan virus aren’t as high as Lyme disease, the lack of treatment for this virus is what makes it such a large concern this tick season.

Other Diseases Ticks Can Carry

As of June 2022, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lists 16 different diseases that ticks can transmit to humans, including:

  • 364D Rickettsiosis
  • Anaplasmosis
  • Babesiosis
  • Borrelia mayonii
  • Borrelia miyamotoi
  • Bourbon virus
  • Colorado tick fever
  • Ehrlichiosis
  • Heartland virus
  • Lyme disease
  • Powassan virus
  • Rickettsiosis
  • Rocky Mountain spotted fever
  • Southern tick-associated rash illness
  • Tick-borne relapsing fever
  • Tularemia

How to Check for Ticks 

One of the best ways you can protect yourself from tick-borne infections after spending time outdoors is to do a tick check as soon as you get inside.

“Do a quick check before you leave the house, and when you get home, do another one,” said Weisenberg. “Then, check again 12 or 24 hours later. That can increase the chances of finding something.”

Doing multiple checks increases your chances of finding smaller ticks in their nymph stage when they’re much smaller.

“The ticks that bite in the springtime are very small and very difficult to see,” said Weisenberg. “So you may be looking right at one and not necessarily see it.”

The CDC recommends first checking your clothes for ticks. If you find any ticks attached to your clothes, dry them for at least 10 minutes on high heat to kill any that may have hitched a ride. 

While ticks are more likely to bite you in warm and moist areas, such as the armpits and groin, they can bite you anywhere on your body. You’ll want to use a mirror to check your entire body to make sure you don’t have any unwanted passengers.

How to Prevent Against Getting Ticks 

Checking for ticks when you get home is a great way to ward off diseases they carry. However, avoiding tick bites in the first place is the best way to protect yourself from infections.

“If you are going to be outside and in areas where there’s [ticks], or going on a hike, come up with a strategy to try to reduce the likelihood of being bitten by a tick,” said Weisenberg. “That includes using repellents approved by the EPA for tick prevention.”

You can search EPA-approved products on their website by how long you’ll be exposed, and whether you’re looking to repel mosquitoes, ticks, or both.  

Weisenberg added proper clothing can help limit tick exposure. Consider reducing exposed skin by wearing long sleeves and pants, as well as tucking your pants into your socks.

If you’re a pet owner, Fuentes says that the biggest way to protect yourself again ticks is by being aware of the fact dogs are major tick carriers. He recommends using an insecticide called permethrin anywhere that dogs spend time, from dog beds and blankets to the backseat of your car.

When to Seek Medical Attention  

Weisenberg said that while the likelihood of getting the Powassan virus is lower than other diseases, identifying early symptoms can help those at risk prevent a possible infection from becoming lethal.

Fever and rash that spread to several centimeters across are some of the most common symptoms to expect if you’ve been infected with the Powassan virus.

According to Weisenberg, facial paralysis and lightheadedness may also be signs of the virus.

Ultimately, he suggests erring on the side of caution and contacting a medical professional if you’re experiencing Powassan-like symptoms after possible tick exposure.

“People should have a low risk threshold during tick season when it comes to alerting their primary doctor or seeking medical care for emergency measures for any acute symptoms,” Weisenberg said. He added that folks in affected areas who are experiencing longer-term symptoms, like joint pain or inflammation, should seek medical care to make sure it isn’t related to Powassan virus.

What This Means For You

Ticks can be active whenever the temperature is over 45 degrees Fahrenheit. As you spend more time outdoors, especially in the northeast and upper midwest, consider doing routine tick checks.

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Fatmi SS, Zehra R, Carpenter DO. Powassan virus—a new reemerging tick-borne disease. Front Public Health. 2017;5:342. doi:10.3389/fpubh.2017.00342

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Powassan virus statistics and maps.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Powassan virus symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment.

  4. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Ticks and Lyme disease.

By Mel Van De Graaff
Mel is a transgender and neurodivergent health journalist specializing in LGBTQ+ issues, sexual health, and mental health.