Your Need-to-Know Guide to West Nile Virus

The cases of West Nile virus are on the rise. Here's how to reduce your risk of getting sick during the biggest U.S. outbreak on record

Officials are reporting that this year’s West Nile virus outbreak is the worst ever recorded in the U.S. More than 3,000 cases have been reported, including 134 deaths. And the season isn't over yet. Because there is no West Nile vaccine, prevention is your best defense. Most cases of West Nile virus are transmitted through mosquito bites, though a very small number of cases come from blood transfusions, organ transplants and via breastfeeding. Here’s what you need to know to protect you and your family from the disease.

Who’s affected by West Nile?
In a word, everyone. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), so far 47 states have reported more than 3,100 cases of West Nile infections in people, birds or mosquitoes, with Texas making up 40 percent of all reported casesd.

Where do mosquitoes breed?
Though you may associate West Nile with swampy conditions, USA Today reports that the Culex mosquito that carries the virus does best in hot, dry weather. Their favorite place to lay eggs is in stagnant water and puddles. Even arid places that haven’t seen rain, like southern California, are at risk. Neglected swimming pools are a major breeding ground for mosquitoes and due to the high number of foreclosures, there are a lot of them.

What are the symptoms of West Nile virus?
Most people who are bit by a mosquito carrying West Nile won't have symptoms at all, never knowing they were infected. About 20 percent may develop a mild illness known as West Nile fever, with symptoms like fever, body aches, headache and sometimes swollen lymph glands and a rash. Less than one percent will develop the life-threatening West Nile disease, also known as West Nile encephalitis or meningitis, which leads to inflammation of the brain. Symptoms include headache, high fever, neck stiffness, stupor, disorientation, coma, tremors, convulsions, muscle weakness and paralysis. Once bitten, it can take two to 14 days to develop symptoms. People over 50 are at the highest risk of illness.

How is it treated?
There is no treatment or vaccine for West Nile infection. People with West Nile fever typically recover on their own, with no lasting health effects. People who develop West Nile encephalitis require immediate medical attention and usually hospitalization.

How can I prevent West Nile?
The best advice (unfortunately) is try not to get bitten. Whenever you’re outdoors wear a mosquito repellent containing picaridin, DEET or oil of lemon eucalyptus. (See which repellents were top rated by Consumer Reports). Spray exposed skin and your clothing, since mosquitoes may bite through thin fabric. Never apply repellent to skin that’s covered by clothing. Pesticide permethrin can also be used on clothing, shoes, bed nets and camping gear. (Use mosquito netting on infants). Consider staying indoors during peak mosquito biting hours: Dawn, dusk and early evening. To keep mosquitoes out of your house, don’t leave doors or windows open unless they have screens. To keep them from flocking to your yard, remove anything that collects water, such as dog bowls, birdbaths and empty flowerpots.

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