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West Nile virus

Definition

West Nile virus is a disease spread by mosquitos. The condition ranges from mild to severe.

Causes, incidence, and risk factors

West Nile virus was first identified in 1937 in Uganda in eastern Africa. It was first discovered in the United States in the summer of 1999 in New York. Since then, the virus has spread throughout the United States.

The West Nile virus is a type of virus known as a flavivirus. Researchers believe West Nile virus is spread when a mosquito bites an infected bird and then bites a person.

Mosquitos carry the highest amounts of virus in the early fall, which is why the rate of the disease increases in late August to early September. The risk of disease decreases as the weather becomes colder and mosquitos die off.

Although many people are bitten by mosquitos that carry West Nile virus, most do not know they've been exposed. Few people develop severe disease or even notice any symptoms at all.

Risk factors for developing a more severe form of West Nile virus include:

  • Conditions that weaken the immune system, such as HIV, organ transplants, and recent chemotherapy
  • Older or very young age
  • Pregnancy

West Nile virus may also be spread through blood transfusions and organ transplants. It is possible for an infected mother to spread the virus to her child through breast milk.

Symptoms

Mild disease, generally called West Nile fever, may cause some or all of the following symptoms:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Lack of appetite
  • Muscle aches
  • Nausea
  • Rash
  • Sore throat
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Vomiting

These symptoms usually last for 3 - 6 days.

More severe forms of disease, which can be life threatening, may be called West Nile encephalitis or West Nile meningitis, depending on what part of the body is affected. The following symptoms can occur, and need prompt attention:

Signs and tests

Signs of West Nile virus infection are similar to those of other viral infections. There may be no specific findings on a physical examination. However, up to half of patients with West Nile virus infection may have a rash.

Tests to diagnose West Nile virus include:

The most accurate way to diagnose this infection is with a serology test, which checks a blood or CSF sample for antibodies against the virus. More rapid techniques using polymerase chain reaction (PCR) may be used.

Treatment

Because this illness is not caused by bacteria, antibiotics do not help treat West Nile virus infection. Standard hospital care may help decrease the risk of complications in severe illness.

Expectations (prognosis)

In general, the outcome of a mild West Nile virus infection is excellent.

For patients with severe cases of West Nile virus infection, the outlook is more uncertain. West Nile encephalitis or meningitis may lead to brain damage and death. Approximately 10% of patients with brain inflammation do not survive.

Complications

Complications from mild West Nile virus infection are very rare.

Complications from severe West Nile virus infection include:

  • Brain damage
  • Permanent muscle weakness (sometimes similar to polio)
  • Death

Calling your health care provider

Call your health care provider if you have symptoms of West Nile virus infection, especially if you may have had contact with mosquitos. If you are severely ill, go to an emergency room.

If you have been bitten by an infected mosquito, there is no treatment to avoid getting West Nile virus infection. People in good general health generally do not develop a serious illness, even if they are bitten by an infected mosquito.

Prevention

The best way to prevent West Nile virus infection is to avoid mosquito bites.

  • Use mosquito-repellant products containing DEET
  • Wear long sleeves and pants
  • Drain pools of standing water, such as trash bins and plant saucers (mosquitos breed in stagnant water)

Community spraying for mosquitos may also prevent mosquito breeding.

Testing of donated blood and organs is currently being evaluated. There are currently no guidelines.

References

Naides SJ. Arthropod-borne viruses causing fever and rash syndromes. In: Goldman L, Ausiello D, eds. Cecil Medicine. 23rd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2007:chap 405.

Bleck TP. Arthropod-borne viruses affecting the central nervous system. In: Goldman L, Ausiello D, eds. Cecil Medicine. 23rd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2007:chap 406.


Review Date: 9/15/2010
Reviewed By: David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine; Jatin M. Vyas, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor in Medicine, Harvard Medical School; Assistant in Medicine, Division of Infectious Disease, Department of Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.
The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.
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