You can't read or watch the news between July and September without hearing about West Nile virus. So far this year, more than 800 cases of the mosquito-borne virus have been reported across the United States and more than 30 people have died. But instead of panicking and resolving to wear mosquito netting everywhere you go from now on, protect yourself with these five essential West Nile facts:
1. Dying From West Nile Is Rare
Even though West Nile has been a popular topic the past few years, the virus is rarely deadly, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In fact, of all the people infected with the virus, 70 to 80 percent will not develop any symptoms. Less than 1 percent of those infected will require hospitalization. And of that 1 percent, only 10 percent will die.
"For the vast majority of people, it resolves on its own," says Lipi Roy, MD, MPH, clinical instructor and internal medicine physician at Massachusetts General Hospital.
2. No Mosquitos? Your West Nile Risk Is Very, Very Low
It's rare for people who do not live in a mosquito-heavy area to get West Nile, Dr. Roy adds. The virus can be transmitted through blood transfusions, organ transplants, laboratory exposure or breastfeeding, but those cases are extremely unlikely.
3. Severe West Nile Symptoms Are Easy to Spot
Symptoms of West Nile include fevers, headaches or nausea, and they usually appear between two days and two weeks of being bitten by an infected mosquito, according to the CDC. Less than 1 percent of people with the virus develop meningitis or encephalitis, which are serious neurologic illnesses. Those most susceptible to this progression are people age 60 or older, or people with weakened immune systems due to chronic medical conditions, such as heart disease, kidney disease or cancer.
If a West Nile case has progressed to a person's brain, symptoms can include high fever, neck stiffness, headache, disorientation, tremors, seizures, paralysis or coma. Recovery can take months, and some effects may be permanent.
4. There Is No Treatment for West Nile, So Prevention Is Key
There is currently no treatment available for West Nile because it is a virus, which means it lives inside your cells and is difficult to target with medicine. There is also no vaccine, Roy says. She suggests that people experiencing low-level West Nile symptoms take over-the-counter pain relievers to reduce headaches and fevers. In severe cases, patients who are hospitalized will receive support treatment, such as intravenous fluids and pain medication.
"We don't have any medication that targets this virus, so the key thing with West Nile is prevention," Roy says.
5. West Nile Season Is Almost Over, But Still Be Smart
The season for West Nile virus typically spans from June through September. Outbreaks in 48 states have been reported since 1999, so be cautious. If you do live in a mosquito hangout area or you're a known mosquito magnet, Roy suggests wearing long pants and long sleeves, especially if you'll be outdoors for a while. But we know wearing so much material in the hottest months of the year can be unpleasant, so you can also use DEET and other bug repellants — just make sure all exposed skin is covered. Roy also suggests using air conditioners or fans indoors to keep the pesky bugs at bay. (Mosquitos prefer warm, humid environments.)
The most important takeaway from all this? "If you're going to get sick, more often it's a cold or a GI virus," Roy says. "Most people are not going to die from West Nile."