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Mosquitoes and West Nile Virus: Facts and Symptoms


West Nile virus heats up in the summer and last into the fall. It's the most common mosquito-borne illness in the United States, with 1,021 cases reported in 2010, according to the CDC. It's spread when mosquitoes bite infected birds and carry the virus to humans.

To avoid West Nile virus, avoid the mosquitoes, which are most active at dusk and dawn. Wear long sleeves and pants if you can, along with mosquito repellent. Also get rid of standing water around Mosquitoes lay eggs in that. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends emptying water collectors such as bird baths, flower pots and pool covers at least once or twice a week, and poking holes in tire swings so they can drain.

Most people infected with West Nile virus have no symptoms. Only up to 20 percent develop mild West Nile fever three to 14 days after a mosquito bite. These symptoms may include three to six days of:

  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Poor appetite
  • Eye pain
  • Headache
  • Muscle aches
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Rash
  • Swollen lymph glands

newsletter-graphicAbout one in 150 infected people develops West Nile encephalitis, with fever, intestinal symptoms, change in mental function and sometimes a rash. Some people have severe muscle weakness, paralysis, balance trouble, nerve damage, inflammation of the spinal cord and seizures.

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No effective antiviral treatment is available for West Nile virus. Hospitalized patients receive IV fluids and respiratory support and may take months to recover.

When to See a Doctor

See a doctor for West Nile virus if you develop fever, headache, flu-like symptoms or swollen glands during mosquito season, and go promptly to an emergency room if you or an acquaintance becomes confused, weak or unsteady on his or her feet.

ELIZABETH A. PECTOR, M.D., wrote the original article (since edited and updated). She is a family physician in Naperville, Ill., and owner of Spectrum Family Medicine.

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Last updated and/or approved: August 2011.
Original article appeared in summer 2004 former print magazine. Bio current as of that issue. This general health-care information is not meant as individual advice. Please see our disclaimer.

Photo courtesy CDC/Jim Gathany.
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