How to protect yourself from the devastating West Nile virus

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With wet summer weather, mosquitoes thrive. And, as the mosquito populations increase, so does the risk of people contracting West Nile virus, a serious and potentially fatal disease.

West Nile virus was first detected in the United States in 1999. Since then, it has spread across the continental United States and Canada. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, West Nile has affected 48,183 people between 1999 and 2017. 

What is West Nile virus?

West Nile virus spreads when an infected mosquito bites a person. It is the leading cause of mosquito-borne illness in the United States. If a mosquito carrying West Nile bites you, you can become infected, but that doesn’t guarantee getting sick. In fact, statistics from the CDC show that around 20 percent of those infected will have some symptoms.

Additionally, about 1 in 150 develop a serious illness that can prove fatal. West Nile encephalitis is an inflammation of the brain, or meningitis, an inflammation of the protective layers of the brain and spinal cord. It can also include disorientation, coma, tremors, seizures or paralysis.

Symptoms and Treatment

According to the CDC, the mild form of West Nile may include the following symptoms:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Body aches
  • Joint pains
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Rash

The CDC also says these symptoms will usually a few days. The symptoms from the more serious form, West Nile encephalitis, can last for months, and some can be permanent. The CDC notes symptoms include:

  • High fever
  • Headache
  • Neck stiffness
  • Stupor
  • Disorientation
  • Coma
  • Tremors
  • Convulsions
  • Muscle weakness
  • Vision loss
  • Numbness and paralysis

Some of these symptoms can be permanent. If you develop any of these symptoms, get yourself to a doctor right away. 

Currently, there is no vaccine to protect against West Nile virus, and there is no antiviral medication that can be given. Treatment options are very limited, but the good news is most people recover from West Nile without treatment.

For the mild cases of West Nile, the CDC’s website says you can use over-the-counter pain relievers to help with fever. It may also help with muscle aches. However, for West Nile encephalitis, you will need a doctor’s care, and you may need hospitalization.

Remember the Four D's

Prevention is the best medicine with West Nile virus. Because there is no cure or vaccination for West Nile virus, the best way to avoid it is to avoid mosquito bites. To avoid mosquitoes, remember the four “D’s”:

  • Dusk and dawn are when mosquitoes are most active, which is why it’s best to stay indoors or wear clothes that cover more skin.
  • DEET, an ingredient in some insect repellants, has been found to be effective in deterring mosquitoes when used as directed.
  • Drain standing water around your house to get rid of mosquito breeding grounds.

Want to read more about creepy-crawlies? Check out our post on bad bug bites.

This post was originally published on August 21, 2014. It has been updated with new data.

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