Expert Health Articles

West Nile Virus

Colleen Abrams

Infection Preventionist

Recently, mosquitos examined by Hancock Public Health as part of the county-wide mosquito surveillance program have tested positive for West Nile virus. The presence of these virus-positive mosquitos calls for a reminder of what the West Nile virus is and how to prevent it.

The West Nile virus is most commonly spread to people by the bite of an infected mosquito. It is not spread through coughing, sneezing or touching, nor through touching live animals.

Most people (~80 percent) infected with West Nile virus do not develop any symptoms. Approximately 20 percent of people who are infected develop a fever and other symptoms including headache, body aches, joint pains, vomiting, diarrhea or rash. Most people who exhibit symptoms recover completely, but fatigue and weakness can last for weeks or months. Less than 1 percent of infected people develop a more severe disease that causes inflammation of the tissue surrounding the brain (meningitis) or the brain itself (encephalitis). Symptoms of this include fever, altered mental status, seizures, neck stiffness and disorientation.

See your health care provider if you develop the symptoms described above. Providers can order West Nile virus tests to diagnose symptoms. Unfortunately, there is no vaccine or specific antiviral treatments for West Nile virus infections at this time. However, over-the-counter pain relievers can be used to reduce fever and relieve some symptoms.

Patients with severe infection often need to be hospitalized for supportive treatment such as IV fluids, pain medication and nursing care. If you or a family member are showing West Nile virus infection symptoms, talk with your health care provider.

The best way to prevent West Nile virus symptoms is to prevent mosquito bites:

  • Use insect repellents containing 30-35 percent DEET or greater than 20 percent picaridin – always follow the product-label instructions
  • Wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants
  • Use screens on windows and doors
  • Limit outdoor activities between dusk and dawn when mosquitoes are active
  • Use air conditioning when available
  • Sleep under a mosquito bed net or screened room if sleeping outdoors
  • Once a week, empty, scrub, turn over, cover or throw out items that hold water such as tires, buckets, birdbaths and/or trash containers.

For more information, speak with your health care provider.