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The Symptoms of West Nile Virus

Updated on November 26, 2012
Mosquito. | Source

The West Nile disease is a virus that is said to be caused by mosquito bites and creates the symptoms of West Nile Virus which can be considered very mild to severe and life threatening. This disease cannot be treated although hospitalization for some of the more vulnerable groups such as the very young or the elderly can prevent the disease from becoming deadly. There are a wide range of signs and symptoms ranging from very mild, like flu, to severe, which can result in permanent brain damage or even death.

Mild Symptoms

West Nile Virus can be severe although the more mild symptoms are what most people experience. These signs can almost mirror that of the flu virus with stomach, like nausea, loss of appetite, diarrhea, vomiting and abdominal pains. These signs can range from mild to severe but they will typically die down after a couple days. Some of the other can mirror a severe type of cold and can include headache, fever, rash, sore throat and swollen lymph nodes.

Nausea, headache, fever ...
Nausea, headache, fever ... | Source

The symptoms can wait 1 to 14 days after exposure to the disease; making it even more difficult to diagnose. While the majority of signs tend to last under a week, it can take up to a month to be completely healed from the virus.

When a patient goes to a doctor with these symptoms, they often think that it may be a cold or flu bug and treat it accordingly. As treatment does not work, the doctor may determine that the patient was in an area where mosquitoes are abundant, making them at risk for this disease. When the patient only has these milder symptoms, the doctor may recommend over the counter medications that will, but antibiotics with West Nile have proven to be ineffective. At this point, doctors only try to help relieve the pain caused it.

Diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal pains, loss of appetite ...
Diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal pains, loss of appetite ... | Source

Severe Symptoms

The symptoms of West Nile Virus that are considered more severe can be life threatening. These sings often lead to another condition called West Nile encephalitis or meningitis. When they appear, the patient should seek immediate medical attention as the effects can cause permanent brain damage and can even lead to death.

The more severe symptoms to watch for include: confusion, loss of consciousness, weakening in an extremity as well as muscle weakness or a stiff neck. These sings can lead to various types of complications that may require hospitalization.

Confusion, loss of consciousness, weakening in an extremity as well as muscle weakness or a stiff neck.
Confusion, loss of consciousness, weakening in an extremity as well as muscle weakness or a stiff neck. | Source

While the signs can make antibiotics ineffective, doctors can treat the symptoms. They can help manage some of the more severe symptoms like the fever which can create the more severe disease. Hospitalization can also prevent some of the more severe signs from progressing to long term problems and even death.

High Risk Patients

There are some patients who are at a higher risk of permanent damage or death who should seek medical attention as soon as they suspect they have been exposed. The elderly is one group that should be aware of their exposure to West Nile disease by monitoring when they are exposed to mosquitoes. As people age, the immune system becomes more vulnerable; therefore, when they suspect virus, they should contact their doctor right away so they can become proactive in treating the symptoms.

High risk patients - elderly and children.
High risk patients - elderly and children. | Source

Like the elderly, very young patients, like infants and newborns are also at high risk for developing severe symptoms when they are infected with West Nile. It is important for parents to know what the signs are and how to prevent the disease. They should also know when to call the doctor should their child's signs become worse. Pregnant women can also pass the disease to their fetus and newborns through their breast milk so this group needs to be even more proactive than the others when seeking treatment.

The Symptoms of West Nile Virus can also prove to be deadly to those who have a compromised immune system. The compromised immune system can be from a number of reasons, but mostly from either cancer patients or those who have HIV. Since Chemotherapy, the most commonly used form of cancer treatment kills all kinds of bacteria in the system, it also makes the patient vulnerable to various diseases where, in most people are mild, but in chemo patients can be deadly. Those who have HIV also have an immune system that has been compromised due to the progression of the disease. The disease makes it nearly impossible for the body to fight off even a simple cold; therefore, should be a possibility, the patient should talk to their doctor immediately.


There is no set treatment for West Nile disease. Most doctors choose to treat each symptom individually like the sore throat and the nausea. If the disease is diagnosed in patients who are at high risk for complications, hospitalization can be used to prevent the disease from going further. Hospitalization for those who are only showing mild symptoms but are at high risk is a type of proactive treatment program, ensuring that the treatment is there if they need it; reducing the risk for long-term complications like brain damage or death. When the patient is already in the hospital, they are under the direct supervision of a nursing staff can monitor the progression of the disease and catch any complications should they appear.

Antibiotics do not work on the virus symptoms since this is a virus similar to that of the stomach flu. With West Nile, patients need to simply let the disease run its natural course unless the disease become severe. The best thing to do for the virus is to simply treat the signs with the medications recommended by the doctor.

Detailed view of mosquito.
Detailed view of mosquito. | Source

The best way for people to reduce their risk for West Nile is to make sure there is no water lying around. If there is an upside down lid with old rain water in it, it should be emptied immediately. As the stagnant water is removed, the risk of having mosquitoes hatched is reduced.

Who Is At Risk?

Just about everyone seems to be at risk for the West Nile Virus. Anytime where is stagnate water lying around, mosquitoes breed and are hatched out of eggs. There is water everywhere, from the rivers to lakes and even pools and mud puddles; there is always some kind of body of water that promotes the infestation of mosquitoes, making people around at risk for this disease.

Another way to reduce the risk of virus is to wear long sleeves and long pants. This may not always be an option since the time that mosquitoes are abundant is in the hot summer months. When shorts are required due to weather, West Nile can still be prevented by putting on a high quality bug spray. This spray should contain DEET to be sure to keep the mosquitoes at bay.

Diagnosing West Nile

West Nile disease cannot be cured but the symptoms can be treated until the virus runs its course. When it can be properly diagnosed, it makes the doctor's job much easier because then they know what they are dealing with. For those who are at high risk, the doctor will likely require them to undergo one or all of these tests as soon as the signs start although those who only have mild virus symptoms or are not in the high risk group will typically be treated on a wait and see basis; meaning if the signs do not appear severe, there is no reason to run any tests.

Mosquito. | Source

The main test that doctors prefer to use when diagnosing West Nile is that of a standard blood draw test called the Complete Blood Count; or CBC. As the white blood cell count is increased, it is likely the patient has some kind of infection like Nile virus. If the blood work comes back normal, then they are back to square one.

Other tests include head CT or MRI's and a lumbar puncture test; or a spinal tap. While the CT's and MRI's are helpful when the signs are severe, they are expensive and unnecessary when the patient is only showing flu like symptoms. The head CT and MRI will show the doctor if there is any swelling in the brain that should be relieved. The spinal tap is a test that should only be done as the last resort. This is a procedure where the spinal fluid is drained and tested. This is the most accurate test to see if the disease has progressed to West Nile Meningitis along with determining the symptoms of West Nile Virus that are present in the patient.


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