By Dr. C. Leigh Broadhurst, Ph.D.
Powassan Disease, caused by an encephalitis virus, is in the same family as West Nile Disease and St. Louis encephalitis. Encephalitis means brain inflammation. These diseases are rare because the brain is highly protected from the general blood circulation, but when they do occur they can cause permanent brain damage or even death.
The alternate hosts for the ticks that spread this virus are small rodents: squirrels, wood or white-footed mice, and groundhogs. The brown dog tick is not considered a vector tick at this time. It does not appear that cats and dogs are susceptible to this encephalitis, however they most certainly can bring ticks into the home that could crawl off and on to humans.
Sadly, 90% of the time that humans get tick borne illness it is because they do not change clothing or bathe frequently enough. Seniors especially may go 4 to 7 days without shampooing hair, allowing ticks to latch on firmly and have prolonged contact with the bloodstream. This greatly increases the risk that enough virus is transferred for significant illness.
They key is not to avoid the benefits of nature and the outdoors, but to respect it and strictly adhere to protocols when hiking or doing extended walking in deep grass or wooded areas.
Use flea and tick repellant products or collars on dogs at all times. Check animals daily for signs of insect infection. You can use insect repellant products on yourself, but do not rely only on them. They are not as effective as mechanically removing crawling ticks BEFORE they bite. Some tips:
• When returning to your car, base camp or point of origin, remove shoes and socks and rinse feet and lower legs with rubbing alcohol (better) or hand sanitizer (OK but use plenty). DO NOT put these same socks on. Have a clean pair ready or switch to sandals. When returning home, immediately remove ALL clothing and wash or put in closed hamper away from the bedroom and wash as soon as you can. Immediately rinse off. Rinse or wash hair or comb it out. Shake out your jacket. Also, just 10 minutes in the dryer will kill ticks on jackets or coats that you don’t want to wash repeatedly.
• When camping, use insect repellant, shake out bedding each day, and try to camp near water where you can rinse off daily and wash socks, etc. Even if the water is very cold it is better than brain damage. Make sure you pack rubbing alcohol. If you forget, any hard liquor is equally effective.
• It’s important to understand that “chiggers” are the small nymph ticks and they are not seen or felt until it is too late. The “ankle wash” as described above will save you from weeks of pain and itching as well as disease. Also pay very close attention to any elastic bands in clothing because chiggers and ticks migrate to these locations.
Dr. C. Leigh Broadhurst, Ph.D.