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Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatment

What are the symptoms of West Nile virus infection?

Many people infected with West Nile virus have no symptoms and do not get sick or have only mild symptoms. When infection does cause illness, symptoms will usually appear within two to 15 days. The extent and severity of symptoms vary widely from person to person.

In mild cases, there may be flu-like symptoms, including fever, headache and body aches. Some people may also develop a mild rash, or swollen lymph glands.

Some individuals have weaker immune systems, and they are at greater risk of developing symptoms and health effects that are more serious, including meningitis, encephalitis and acute flaccid paralysis. Meningitis is inflammation of the lining of the brain or spinal cord. Encephalitis is inflammation of the brain itself. Acute flaccid paralysis is a polio-like syndrome that can result in the loss of function of one or more limbs. These conditions can be fatal.

For people with more severe illness, symptoms could include the rapid onset of severe headache, high fever, stiff neck, nausea, difficulty swallowing, vomiting, drowsiness, confusion, loss of consciousness, lack of coordination, muscle weakness and paralysis. Other symptoms that have been identified include movement disorders, parkinsonism, poliomyelitis-like syndrome and muscle degeneration. Anyone who has a sudden onset of these symptoms should seek immediate medical attention.

Who is at risk for serious health effects from West Nile virus?

While persons of any age or health status can be at risk of developing serious health effects from West Nile virus, the overall risk of serious health effects increases with age. People with weaker immune systems are considered to be at greater risk for serious health effects.

People at higher risk for serious health effects from West Nile virus include:

  • people with chronic diseases, such as cancer, diabetes, alcoholism, or heart disease;
  • people that require medical treatment that may weaken the immune system, i.e. chemotherapy.

Because West Nile virus can cause severe complications for people of any age and any health status, it is extremely important to reduce the risk of getting bitten by mosquitoes. Anyone exposed to mosquitoes in an area where West Nile virus has been detected is at some degree of risk for infection.

How do doctors diagnose West Nile virus infection in their patients?

The first thing doctors look for are symptoms of West Nile virus infection. The type of symptoms and their severity can vary widely from case to case. In mild cases, there may be flu-like symptoms, including fever, headache and body aches. Some people may also develop a mild rash or swollen lymph glands.

While persons of any age or health status can be at risk of developing serious health effects associated with West Nile virus infection, including meningitis, encephalitis, and acute flaccid paralysis, the overall risk of serious health effects increases with age. Meningitis is inflammation of the lining of the brain or spinal cord. Encephalitis is inflammation of the brain itself. Acute flaccid paralysis is a polio-like syndrome that can result in the loss of function of one or more limbs. In these cases, symptoms include the rapid onset of severe headaches, high fever, stiff neck, nausea, difficulty swallowing, vomiting, drowsiness, blurred vision or deterioration in eyesight, confusion, loss of consciousness, lack of coordination, muscle weakness and paralysis. If a doctor suspects that a patient has West Nile virus, a blood test will be conducted to confirm the diagnosis.

What treatments are available for people with West Nile virus?

There is no specific treatment, medication, or cure for West Nile virus. Serious cases are treated with supportive therapies to ease symptoms and prevent secondary infections. These cases may require hospital or nursing care.

Is there a vaccine for West Nile virus?

At this time, there is no licensed vaccine to protect people against West Nile virus. Many scientists are working on this issue, and there is hope that a vaccine will become available in the next few years.

What are the long-term effects of West Nile virus?

Because West Nile virus is an emerging disease, the long-term effects are not fully understood. Studies to date show that some people with serious symptoms and health effects recover completely, while others experience prolonged health problems. These problems can include:

  • physical effects, such as long-term muscle weakness and paralysis, fatigue and headache;
  • cognitive effects, such as confusion, depression, problems with concentration and memory loss;
  • functional effects, such as difficulty with preparing meals, going out, shopping, etc.

Scientists do not know why some people recover while others continue to have varying degrees of health problems.