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According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this year has been the worst year for West Nile virus in the United States in 10 years, and Texas has the nation’s highest number of West Nile virus cases to date. There have been multiple cases of West Nile illnesses reported in Central Texas, aerial sprays in Dallas to combat mosquitoes, and numerous questions about prevention and treatment from the public.

Although this elevated number of cases can be alarming, it should be noted that about 80 percent of people who contract West Nile virus will not develop any symptoms. This is because the body’s immune system is able to detect and control the virus before it is able to cause significant damage, as is the case with many other infections. The remaining 20 percent tend to develop non-life threatening febrile illness, which is characterized by a sudden onset of fever. Less than 1 percent of those infected develop a more severe illness that invades the neurological system, which can cause meningitis or encephalitis and can be fatal.

As with most illnesses, prevention is the best defense against West Nile virus. Since the primary means of transmission is through bites from infected mosquitoes, you should minimize your exposure to them. While anyone can be infected with West Nile, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems are at a greater risk of developing severe illness.

  • Avoid being outside at dusk and dawn when mosquitoes are more active
  • Minimize your time outdoors
  • Keep your windows and doors closed when you are inside
  • Use insect repellent, especially those with DEET
  • Drain any standing water around your home or business, as it can be an ideal breeding ground for mosquitoes
  • Wear long-sleeved shirts and pants when you are going to be outside—there are breathable long-sleeve shirts that can still be worn comfortably in the heat

West Nile symptoms usually appear within 3 to 14 days of the bite. People who are infected, but exhibit mild symptoms, may find that those symptoms subside on their own. Of course, if you ever question whether or not you should seek medical attention, err on the side of caution. These symptoms, which are similar to those of many other infections, include:

  • Fever (moderate to high)
  • Joint and muscle aches
  • Headache
  • Rash

More serious cases may include neurological signs, such as:

  • Stiff neck
  • Disorientation
  • Difficulty walking
  • Weakness or even paralysis in the extremities
  • Convulsions

Individuals exhibiting any of these symptoms should seek medical attention immediately.

Even though most West Nile viruses are spread by the bite of an infected mosquito, not all mosquitoes carry the virus. If you think you have been infected with West Nile virus and you are exhibiting any of the more severe symptoms or running a high-grade fever, it is important to seek medical attention immediately.

Dan Mackay, M.D., is a physician at the St. David’s Urgent Care Round Rock.

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