How does someone “catch” West Nile virus?
West Nile virus is contracted generally through the bite of a mosquito. Mosquitoes feed on other animals, such as birds, and acquire the virus. They then feed on people and horses, who both can contract the virus. Pets, such as dogs and cats, can contract West Nile, but it's rare.
In a very small number of cases, West Nile virus has been spread through blood transfusions, organ transplants, and from mother to baby during pregnancy, delivery or breast-feeding.
It can take anywhere from two days to two weeks for the virus to present itself once you've been bitten. Not every mosquito bite will result in a person contracting West Nile virus. In fact, most people — an estimated 80 percent — who contract the virus don't ever develop symptoms. However, people older than 50 or people with underlying medical conditions are at a higher risk to develop illness.
The mild symptoms of West Nile virus can include fever, headache, tiredness and body aches that can last for several days. Some people might develop a rash. The more severe symptoms include neurological symptoms, including meningitis or inflammation of the brain, or even paralysis.
How is it treated?
There are no medications to treat West Nile virus. There also isn't a vaccine to prevent it.
Over-the-counter pain relievers can be used to reduce fever or other symptoms. Most people recover on their own.
Your doctor will likely give you “supportive care,” treating your symptoms. Because it's a virus, antibiotics are not generally effective. If you're hospitalized with severe symptoms, you'll generally be given intravenous fluids, pain medication and nursing care.
Does it hurt?
If you contract the virus, you might suffer from joint pain that lasts for weeks or months. Each person is different, and symptoms will vary from person to person.
What's the recovery time?
It will depend on the extent of your symptoms. Most people do recover completely from West Nile, but it can take a long time. Fatigue and weakness can last for weeks or months. Recovery from severe disease can take several weeks or months. About 10 percent of people who develop neurological infection because of West Nile will die as a result of their illness.
What's the follow-up?
If you develop severe symptoms, you might require physical therapy after leaving the hospital. It will depend on your prognosis and what you and your doctor decide is best. As with any health-related issue, you should ask questions and ensure that you and your caretaker understand what the doctor tells you.
It's important to note that West Nile is a preventable illness, meaning you can take precautions to protect yourself. When spending time outside, you should apply insect repellent containing an active ingredient like 10 percent to 30 percent DEET, Picaridin or oil of lemon eucalyptus. It's good to keep in mind that mosquitoes are generally most active during the early morning and early evening hours.
Last year, Oklahoma had a record-breaking number of people who died or were sickened by West Nile virus. If you contract West Nile virus, it's generally believed you cannot catch it again.
Sources: Laurence Burnsed, an epidemiologist at the state Health Department; the Oklahoma State Department of Health; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; the Mayo Clinic.