West Nile virus is mainly transmitted to humans through the bites of infected mosquitoes. West Nile virus can cause a fatal neurological disease in humans. However, about 80% of people infected will not show any symptoms. You can find more information below.

What is West Nile virus?

West Nile virus is a type of infection transmitted by mosquitoes. Most people infected with West Nile virus either do not develop symptoms or have only minor symptoms such as fever and mild headache. However, some people develop a life-threatening disease involving inflammation of the spinal cord or brain.

Mild symptoms of West Nile virus infection usually go away on their own. But serious symptoms such as severe headache, fever, disorientation or sudden weakness require prompt treatment.

Exposure to mosquitoes with West Nile virus increases your risk of becoming infected. You can protect yourself from mosquitoes by using mosquito repellent and wearing clothing that covers your skin to reduce your risk.

How is West Nile virus transmitted?

Typically, West Nile virus is spread to humans and animals through infected mosquitoes. You cannot become infected from casual contact with an infected person or animal.

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Most West Nile virus infections occur in hot weather when mosquitoes are active. The incubation period – the time between being bitten by an infected mosquito and showing symptoms of the disease – ranges from two to 14 days.

West Nile virus has originated in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. It emerged in the United States in the summer of 1999, and since then cases have been reported in every state except Hawaii and Alaska, and in Canada.

Other possible routes of transmission

In some cases, the virus may have spread through other means, including organ transplants and blood transfusions. However, blood donors are screened for the virus, significantly reducing the risk of infection from blood transfusions.

There are also possible reports of mother-to-child transmission of the virus during pregnancy or breastfeeding, or exposure to the virus in a laboratory, but these are rare and not conclusively confirmed.

Who is at risk?

Even if you are infected, your risk of developing a serious illness with West Nile virus is extremely small – less than 1% of people infected become seriously ill, and most people who do get sick make a full recovery. You are more likely to develop a serious or fatal infection based on:

  • Age: Being older puts you at greater risk.
  • Certain medical conditions: Certain diseases such as cancer, diabetes , hypertension, kidney disease, and organ transplant increase your risk.

What are the symptoms of West Nile virus?

Most people who are infected with the virus have no symptoms. When symptoms do occur, some are mild but some are serious.

Mild signs of infection

About 20% of people develop a mild infection called West Nile fever . Common signs and symptoms include:

  • Fire
  • Headache
  • body aches
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Tiredness
  • skin rash
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Serious signs of infection

In less than 1% of people infected with West Nile virus, the virus causes a serious neurological infection ( meningitis ) involving inflammation of the brain ( encephalitis ) and the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord .

Symptoms of neurological infections include:

  • High fever
  • Severe headache
  • stiff neck
  • Disorientation or confusion
  • Come on
  • Shake
  • seizures
  • partial paralysis or muscle weakness

West Nile fever symptoms usually last for a few days, but symptoms of encephalitis or meningitis can last for weeks or months. Some neurological effects, such as muscle weakness, may be permanent.

When should you see a doctor?

Mild symptoms of West Nile fever usually resolve on their own. You should seek immediate medical attention for signs of serious infection such as severe headaches, stiff neck, disorientation or confusion. A serious infection usually requires hospitalization.

How is West Nile virus diagnosed?

In addition to performing a physical exam, your doctor can confirm the presence of West Nile virus, a West Nile-related disease such as meningitis or encephalitis, by performing one of the following tests:

  • Lab tests: If you’re infected, a blood test can show an elevated level of antibodies to West Nile virus. Antibodies are immune system proteins that attack foreign substances such as viruses.
  • Lumbar puncture: The most common way to diagnose meningitis is to analyze the cerebrospinal fluid that surrounds your brain and spinal cord. A needle inserted between the lower vertebrae of your spine is used to extract a sample of fluid for laboratory analysis. The fluid sample may show a high white cell count (a signal that your immune system is fighting an infection) and antibodies to West Nile virus.
  • Brain tests: In some cases, an electroencephalogram, a procedure that measures your brain’s activity, or a magnetic resonance imaging scan can help detect brain inflammation.
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How is West Nile virus treated?

Most people recover from West Nile virus without treatment. Severe cases require supportive treatment in hospital with intravenous fluids and pain medication.

For mild cases, over-the-counter pain relievers can help relieve mild headaches and muscle aches. Caution should be exercised when giving aspirin to children or teenagers . Children and teenagers recovering from chickenpox or flu-like symptoms should never take aspirin. Because aspirin can cause Reye’s syndrome , a rare but potentially life-threatening condition in these children .

Interferon therapy

Scientists are investigating interferon therapy, a type of immune cell therapy, as a treatment for encephalitis caused by the West Nile virus. Some research shows that people who take interferon recover better than those who do not take the drug, but more studies are needed.

Remember, your doctor will decide which medicine to take and how.

Can West Nile virus be prevented?

Every mosquito bite increases your risk of infection. The following steps can help you prevent West Nile virus when you are outside:

  • Protect your skin with long-sleeved shirts, pants and socks.
  • Apply mosquito repellent to your body.
  • Eliminate stagnant water around your home (mosquitoes are attracted to stagnant water).
  • Make sure there are things on the windows and doors of your home that prevent mosquitoes from entering.
  • Use mosquito netting to protect you and your children from mosquito bites.

Mosquito bites are most common from late August to early September. Your risk is reduced during the colder months, as mosquitoes cannot survive during the colder months.

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