As if Lyme Disease weren't bad enough, now the Powassan virus has surfaced. While Lyme disease derives its name from Lyme, Conn., where it was initially identified, the Powassan virus gets it name from Powassan, Ontario, where it was first found. So far this new tick-borne disease has been restricted to down-state areas here in New York state, but authorities are warning people about it because it can be particularly dangerous and can be spread from a tick to a human in as little as 15 minutes, compared to a few days or more by Lyme disease carriers.
To date, a young lad in the downstate area suffered the disease after being bitten by a tick, but in his case it was fatal. There may have been others but that's the only one I'm aware of at the moment. Other cases are being reviewed to determine if ticks were a causative factor.
Since 2008 this virus has caused some 40 deaths in the U.S. However, don't let that keep you out of the woods. We've covered this topic a number of times in this column and the same preventative measures you take for deer ticks will work equally well against those carrying Powassan virus, though it doesn't appear to have spread this far upstate anyway.
DEALING WITH A TICK
We're actually in the midst of one of the worst years for Lyme disease; what should you do if you find a deer tick embedded somewhere on your body? According to the NYS Department of Health website, here's how you do it, but first let's assume you don't have one of those special tick removal devices or kits that can be bought at many pharmacies or sporting good counters.
Using tweezers (a couple of my Swiss Army knives include a pair of tweezers), grasp the tick as close to your skin as possible; gently pull the tick up in a steady, upward motion; once you have the tick out, wash the area of the bite with a disinfectant. When attempting to remove the tick don't touch it with your bare hands and don't squeeze its body, as that might increase your risk of an infection.
WHAT NOT TO DO
Also, don't put alcohol, nail polish remover or Vaseline on the tick. Don't put a hot match or cigarette on the tick in an effort of make it "back out" since it probably won't. Don't use your fingers to remove the tick. These methods don't work and may only increase the likelihood the tick will transmit Lyme disease to you. Applying alcohol, nail polish remover, a hot cigarette or similar items can irritate a tick and cause it to regurgitate its gut contents into your skin. Those gut contents can contain the Lyme disease-causing bacteria or, even worse, the Powassan virus.
Don't panic or worry if the critter's mouthparts break off and remain in your skin. Those mouthparts alone can't transmit Lyme disease because the infective body of the tick is no longer attached. You can leave the mouthparts alone and they'll likely dry up and fall off in a few days, or you can remove them as you would a splinter.
KEEP AN EYE ON IT
After cleaning the area of any tick attachment, watch the site of the bite for the appearance of a rash three to 30 days after the bite. The rash will usually be at least two inches in diameter initially, and will gradually expand to several inches in size. Rashes smaller than than the size of a quarter are usually a reaction to the bite itself and do not mean you have Lyme disease.
If you develop a rash, or flu-like symptoms, contact your physician immediately. Though not routinely recommended, taking antibiotics within three days of a tick bite may be beneficial for some persons. This would apply primarily to tick bites that occur in areas where Lyme disease is common and there is evidence that the tick fed for more than one day. In cases like this, discuss all the possibilities with your health care provider. Be guided by his or her recommendations and remember that not every deer tick is a carrier of Lyme disease.
PREVENTION IS BETTER
Just remember that deer ticks can be particularly plentiful at this time of year, so take whatever preventive measures you can. Insect repellents can be effective deterrents, and those containing DEET or permethrin are particularly effective. The DEET acts as a repellent while permethrin actually kills the ticks and other insects that come in contact with it.
If you opt for the DEET, use the strongest concentration you can handle. The smaller the percentage of DEET in the concentration, the less protection it provides. However, some people may be sensitive to one or both of these products so care should be taken before using them. There are other alternatives. If you do use a chemical repellent, apply it sparingly but thoroughly around your boot tops, trousers and shirt cuffs and perhaps around your collar as well.
Other simple tactics that help minimize the possibility of tick bites involve tucking your trouser cuffs into your socks and being certain your shirt is tucked into your trousers.
CHECK YOUR PETS
While hunters and hikers are particularly susceptible to ticks, even the otherwise pleasant task of taking your pet for a walk can put both you and your pet at risk. Examine your pets after every outdoor jaunt to ensure no tick has attached itself to them.
Above all, learn the difference between wood ticks and deer ticks. Deer ticks (about the size of Abe Lincoln's beard on a penny coin) are much smaller than wood ticks, and while wood ticks are generally not considered as potentially harmful as the deer tick, they nonetheless can cause infections and transmit Lyme disease as well a few other diseases, and they will burrow into your skin like a deer tick.
In any event, learn to tell the difference. Deer ticks can be active year-round, whenever the temperature is in the 40-degree range or above, and that may be why some successful hunters find their deer hosting an abundance of ticks. Be careful when handling the deer and be especially cautious when field dressing or otherwise preparing the carcass for the freezer.