West Nile Virus: What Is the Risk? (Video)

Who is at risk and how to reduce your risk

woman sick with fever and headache

We’re in the midst of one of the largest West Nile virus outbreaks ever seen in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Forty-seven states have reported West Nile virus infections in people, birds or mosquitoes.

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Infectious disease physician Adarsh Bhimraj, MD, says some people are at higher risk than others, particularly transplant patients with suppressed immune systems who may be on high doses of medication or people who are born with certain deficiencies.

“Once they get mosquito bites, these are the ones have a greater chance of developing what we call this invasive disease or the infection that goes to the brain and the spine,” Dr. Bhimraj says.

The West Nile virus:

  • Most often affects those with suppressed immune systems
  • Is most often spread when an infected mosquito bites you
  • Takes about three to 14 days to make a person ill, once bitten and infected

Dr. Bhimraj says most people never get sick, but if you do, the symptoms can vary from a mild infection that can include fever and body aches to, in rare cases, severe brain and spinal cord infections.

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“Even in those people who get the infection, 80 percent or four out of five people will not have any symptoms and they’ll do OK and about 20 percent of them get sick, out of which do, less than 1 percent get severe disease that is severe enough to go to your brain,” Dr. Bhimraj says.

Dr. Bhimraj adds that there’s no need to become paranoid about mosquito bites but it never hurts to be cautious when outside.

Tips to help prevent mosquito bites include:

  • Eliminate standing water around your house to destroy any potential mosquito breeding grounds
  • Install or repair window screens
  • Cover your skin in repellent or clothing

“Mosquitoes tend to bite more often during dusk and dawn so if you can avoid going out around these times, that will reduce the chance [of mosquito bites]. Or if weather permits, wear long sleeves or pants so you’re not exposing your skin,” Dr. Bhimraj says.

If you think you’ve developed a serious West Nile virus infection and you have a severe headache, muscle weakness or paralysis, you should seek medical help immediately.

More information

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Understanding the West Nile Virus

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