Potentially Deadly Disease Can Start 15 Minutes After Tick Bite

Health officials are reminding the public to take steps to avoid tick bites, which can spread very serious—and potentially deadly—diseases. 

As more people venture into the woods and fields of New England to enjoy outdoor recreation, infectious disease experts note that ticks in the northeast spread more than Lyme disease. One rarer, but potentially more serious illness, is the Powassan virus. 

“It is a rare disease, but it is serious,” said Bradley Tompkins, an epidemiologist with the Vermont Department of Health. 

Tompkins said Powassan can cause brain swelling, seizures, and speech problems. 

NBC News reported a tenth of people who catch it may die, and half could be left with long-term struggles. 

The CDC knows of roughly 75 reported cases of Powassan over the past decade, many of those in the northeast, including eight in Massachusetts. 

Tompkins pointed out the number of unreported or milder cases of Powassan would surely drive that tally higher. 

And once that tick bites, he said, there’s an alarming difference between Powassan and Lyme disease. 

“It can take a number of hours before Lyme disease gets transmitted from the tick into the person, but they think the Powassan virus can be transmitted in as little as 15 minutes,” Tompkins said of the latest research into the spread of the virus. 

The Vermont Department of Health and the Vermont Department of Fish & Wildlife, which advocates for the safe exploration of the outdoors, provided the following tips which may help New Englanders avoid tick-borne illnesses:

• Apply insect repellents to the body, such as one containing DEET, and treat garments with the repellent permethrin

• If possible, wear long-sleeved, light-colored shirts and long pants, and tuck pant legs into your socks to block ticks from coming in direct contact with your body

• After finishing your outdoor activities, closely inspect garments and skin, and remove ticks as soon as possible

• Taking a hot shower soon after coming indoors can be effective at washing off ticks before they embed themselves in the skin

• Wash and dry clothes on hot settings to kill ticks that may still be in fabric

• If you were bitten by a tick, watch for changes during the weeks after the bite, and call your health care provider if you notice fever, muscle aches, fatigue, or pain in your joints

Maj. George Scribner of the Vermont Department of Fish & Wildlife spends a lot of time in woods and fields as a game warden, so takes many precautions to guard against the tiny, potentially disease-spreading hitchhikers.

“It’s a big concern,” he said of tick bites. “Don't assume that you don't have a tick on you. I always try to assume I do have a tick, then I do all my checks.” 

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