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West Nile Virus

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West Nile virus causes an infection that is spread by certain kinds of mosquitoes camera.gif. Most often, mosquitoes get infected when they bite infected birds. Then the mosquitoes spread the virus when they bite people or other animals, such as horses. West Nile cannot spread from these animals to people or from person to person through casual contact.

West Nile can spread through an organ transplant or a blood transfusion. So all donated blood in the United States is screened to see if the virus is present. Some evidence suggests that West Nile can spread from a mom to her baby during pregnancy, at birth, or through breast milk. But the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) still recommends that women breast-feed, because the risk of spreading the virus to babies is unclear and the benefits of breast-feeding are known.1

Most people who have West Nile have no symptoms. Or the symptoms may be so mild that people may not even realize that they have the virus. In rare cases, West Nile can lead to swelling of the brain (encephalitis), swelling of the spinal cord (myelitis), or swelling of the tissues around the brain and spinal cord (meningitis). But very few people with West Nile will get a severe illness that affects the brain or spinal cord.2

Anyone who is bitten by a mosquito may get West Nile. Most of the time people fully recover from it. But permanent problems such as seizures, memory loss, and brain damage can occur, especially in children and older people. As you get older, you have a higher risk for getting encephalitis and other serious problems from West Nile. In a few cases, West Nile can be fatal.

About 80 out of 100 people who have West Nile have no symptoms and only about 1 out of 150 people infected develops serious illness.2 When symptoms do appear, they begin 3 to 14 days after the mosquito bite. Mild symptoms include:

In mild cases of West Nile, symptoms usually last for 3 to 6 days. If you get a more severe case of West Nile, symptoms can last for weeks or months. Severe cases that involve problems with the brain and spinal cord are rare, but they may cause:

  • Headaches.
  • A high fever.
  • A stiff neck or paralysis.
  • Confusion.
  • Reduced attention to surroundings.
  • Tremors, convulsions, or muscle weakness.
  • A coma.

In rare cases, West Nile virus can cause death.

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WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: August 10, 2012
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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