How Do You Treat West Nile Virus?

  • Medical Author:

    Sandra Gonzalez Gompf, MD, FACP is a U.S. board-certified Infectious Disease subspecialist. Dr. Gompf received a Bachelor of Science from the University of Miami, and a Medical Degree from the University of South Florida. Dr. Gompf completed residency training in Internal Medicine at the University of South Florida followed by subspecialty fellowship training there in Infectious Diseases under the directorship of Dr. John T. Sinnott, IV.

  • Medical Editor: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

Ask the experts

My doctor said I might have West Nile virus -- I've got a fever and body aches and swollen glands. How do you treat West Nile virus? Is there a cure for West Nile?

Doctor's response

There is no specific treatment for West Nile virus infection at this time. Intensive supportive therapy is directed toward the complications of brain infection. Anti-inflammatory medications, intravenous fluids, and intensive medical monitoring may be required in severe cases. In milder cases, over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) or aspirin may help reduce symptoms of pain and fever. There is no specific antibiotic or antiviral for the viral infection. There is no vaccine to prevent the virus.

Mild or symptom-free infections are common with the West Nile virus. Among all people who become infected, only two out of 10 develop any symptoms. Of those, most only have mild symptoms similar to those of the flu, such as headache, body aches, joint pain, swollen lymph nodes, vomiting, diarrhea, or rash. The symptoms are not severe enough for most people to seek medical care, but tiredness and weakness can last for several weeks. Typically, only one in 150 infections lead to severe or neuroinvasive (nervous system disease) infections, according to the CDC. Neuroinvasive disease is caused by infection and inflammation of the surface covering of the brain (meningitis) or deeper infection of the brain itself (encephalitis).

Neuroinvasive disease is uncommon but more likely to occur in those over age 50. There are two general symptoms of neuroinvasive disease. Meningitis is marked by headache, high fever, and neck stiffness. Encephalitis causes these symptoms but may progress to stupor (sleepiness), disorientation, hallucinations, paralysis, coma, tremors, convulsions, and rarely death. Sometimes general weakness progressing to complete paralysis occurs, similar to polio; this is called acute flaccid paralysis.

West Nile virus can have some long-term effects after severe illnesses. West Nile virus meningitis or encephalitis may result in a prolonged recuperation and rehabilitation period, especially in the elderly. Memory loss, depression, irritability, and confusion are the most prevalent residual effects.

Patients may also experience difficulty walking, muscle weakness, joint pain, fatigue, vomiting, diarrhea, and insomnia.

Symptoms in children and babies are basically the same as symptoms in adults. Children may complain of headache, may have a fever, and may become lethargic.

Since most cases of West Nile virus infection are mild, the prognosis for recovery is generally good. In severe cases, death rates are highest in the elderly.

For more information, read our full medical article on West Nile virus.

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REFERENCES:

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Kennedy, Kristy. "Calming West Nile Fears." American Academy of Pediatrics. Sept. 2002. <http://www.aap.org/family/wnv-sept02.htm>.

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United States. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "West Nile, a Pregnancy Danger?" Feb. 28, 2004. <https://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=31127>.

United States. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "West Nile Virus." Aug. 8, 2011. <http://www.cdc.gov/Features/WestNileVirus/>.

United States. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "West Nile Virus (WNV) Activity Reported to ArboNET, by State, United States, 2011." Aug. 16, 2011. <http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/dvbid/westnile/Mapsactivity/surv&control11MapsAnybyState.htm>.

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Reviewed on 9/28/2018