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West Nile Virus Symptoms in Children

Updated on July 10, 2013

West Nile virus infections are transmitted via mosquitoes. Most individuals, including children, infected by the virus do not elicit any symptoms, or may experience mild cases of fever and headache. Some infected people may however develop a deadly illness that involves brain inflammation.

The minor signs and symptoms tend to disappear without treatment. However, serious symptoms like intense headache, confusion, fever, or sudden weakness, need urgent medical care.

Children are at greater risk to developing West Nile virus infection when they come into contact with mosquitoes in areas known for existence of the virus. Protect yourself and your children from mosquitoes by wearing adequate clothing to limit the amount of exposed skin and using mosquito repellants.

Symptoms of West Nile virus infection in children

Most children infected by the West Nile do not show any signs or symptoms. An estimated 20 percent of infected individuals experience mild cases of West Nile fever, which may result in the below listed symptoms:

  • Fever
  • Back aches
  • Body pain
  • Headaches
  • Exhaustion or fatigue
  • On occasions, a skin rash
  • On occasions, pain in the eyes
  • On occasions, swelling of the lymph glands

Less than one percent of the individuals (including children) infected by the West Nile virus, may experience a severe neurological infection by the virus. This infection may cause encephalitis, i.e., inflammation of the brain, or meningoencephalitis, i.e., swelling of the brain as well as the enclosing membranes.Severe infection may also lead to meningitis, i.e., inflammation and infection of the membranes that surround the spinal cord and brain; West Nile poliomyelitis, i.e., inflammation of the spinal cord; and acute flaccid paralysis which causes a sudden weakness in the legs, arms, or respiratory muscles.

The signs and symptoms of the above listed conditions are as follows:

  • High fever
  • Stiffness of the neck
  • Intense headache
  • Confusion or disorientation
  • Jerking of muscles or tremors
  • Coma or stupor
  • Deficient coordination
  • Pain
  • Seizures or convulsions
  • Sudden weakness of muscles or partial paralysis

The symptoms of mild West Nile fever typically last for some days. However, the signs of meningitis or encephalitis can persist for many weeks, and some neurological anomalies like muscle weakness may become permanent.

Causes of West Nile virus infection in children

  • West Nile virus is generally transmitted to animals and humans through infected mosquitoes. Mosquitoes become carriers of the virus after they bite infected birds. The virus does not spread by kissing or touching an infected individual.
  • A majority of West Nile virus infections happen during warm climatic conditions, when the mosquitoes are usually prevalent. The period of incubation can range from 3 to 14 days.
  • The West Nile virus occurs in regions like Africa, the Middle East, and parts of Asia. It first made its appearance in the United States in 1999, during summer. Since then it has been detected in all the 48 states of mainland U.S.

Other modes of West Nile Virus transmission: In some instances, the virus may have transmitted via other sources such as blood transfusion and organ transplantation. It may however be noted that all blood donors are checked for the West Nile virus, thereby considerably decreasing the risk of infections through blood transfusions. Rare and inconclusively proven cases of virus transmission from mother to baby during breast-feeding or pregnancy have also been reported.

The West Nile virus usually causes severe infection in people with weakened immune systems, or in the elderly. Children are not at elevated risk to West Nile virus infection. The below listed risk factors may increase the vulnerability to developing the infection:

  • Most cases of West Nile virus infection in the United States have happened between July and September.
  • Children and professionals who spend a lot of time outdoors are at greater risk to getting bitten by infected mosquitoes
  • Even though West Nile virus is present in all of continental U.S., the current highest rates of incidence have been reported in the Southern and Midwestern states.

Treatment of West Nile virus infection in children

  • Most individuals, including children, infected by the West Nile virus tend to recover without any treatment. Muscle aches and minor headaches can be alleviated with non-prescription pain killers.
  • It is important to consult a doctor before giving aspirin to young children or adolescents. Although aspirin is approved to be used by children older than two years, adolescents and children who are recovering from flu-like symptoms or chickenpox should never be given aspirin. This is because aspirin intake is known to cause Reye's syndrome, an uncommon but potentially deadly condition, in such children.
  • Meningitis or encephalitis has no direct cure. However, supportive therapy in a hospital which includes intravenous administration of fluids and medications may be required to prevent other kinds of infections.
  • Interferon therapy is a new treatment option for encephalitis caused by the West Nile virus. It is still a subject of research.

Prevention of West Nile virus infection in children

One of the best ways for preventing mosquito-borne diseases like West Nile virus infection is by eliminating the breeding grounds of mosquitoes and avoiding contact with them. You may follow the steps given below to control the growth of West Nile virus:

  • Remove standing water from your garden or backyard. Mosquitoes thrive in puddles of standing water
  • Clean the roof gutters
  • Get rid of old tires or unused containers that may hold water and act as a breeding site for mosquitoes
  • At least once a week, change the water in birdbaths
  • Empty swimming pools that remain unused

You can decrease contact with mosquitoes by following the below listed steps:

  • Avoid the outdoors during dawn, early evening, and dust as mosquitoes are most active during these times
  • Use mosquito netting to cover the infant’s playpen or stroller when outdoors
  • Apply mosquito repellants on clothing and skin. Carefully follow all the package instructions when using them on children
  • When visiting mosquito-infested regions, ensure that you wear sufficient clothing like long pants and shirts with long sleeves

A vaccine is currently available to guard horses from West Nile virus infections. There is no vaccine for humans. It is in the developmental stages.

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