Photo: CDC.govApril Daniels Hussar, SELF magazine
Lakeside picnics and sunset cocktails on the deck are what summer's all about, but pesky mosquitoes can leave you with more than just an annoying, itchy bite. You hear about West Nile virus every summer, and yes, it's back again this year.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) the West Nile virus is considered a "seasonal epidemic" in North America that flares up in the summer and continues into the fall (it was first discovered in the U.S. in the summer of 1999).
"Seasonal outbreaks of West Nile virus disease occur each year in the United States," Nicole Lindsey, M.S., epidemiologist with CDC's Division of Vector-Borne Diseases, tells HealthySELF. Since West Nile virus is primarily transmitted to humans by the bite of an infected mosquito, Lindsey says most human infections in the U.S. occur when mosquitoes are most active: from June through September, peaking in mid-August.
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"So far this year, a total of 30 states have reported West Nile virus infections in humans, birds or mosquitoes, and most cases have been reported from states in the South Central region, including Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Oklahoma," says Lindsey. "However, it is still early in the West Nile virus transmission season and other regions may have more virus activity later in the year," she cautions.
In fact, Joseph Conlon, a medical entomologist and technical adviser to the American Mosquito Control Association, says West Nile is far more common in the U.S. than previously thought: There have been 30,000 reported cases and 1,300 fatalities from this disease, and the CDC points out that many cases of the illness are not reported.
Still, there's no reason to panic, especially if you're young and healthy. According to Lindsey, people over 50 years of age have a higher chance of developing West Nile, but anyone can get sick. "People with certain medical conditions, such as cancer, diabetes, hypertension and kidney disease, are also at greater risk for serious illness," she adds.
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Approximately one in five people who are infected with West Nile virus develop a fever with other symptoms such as headache, body aches, joint pains, vomiting, diarrhea or a rash. "These symptoms usually last for a few days but some people can have weakness or fatigue for several weeks," Lindsey says. However, she points out, "Most people infected with West Nile virus will not have any symptoms at all."
According to the CDC, about one in 150 people infected with West Nile virus will develop more severe symptoms, such as high fever, headache, neck stiffness, stupor, disorientation, coma, tremors, convulsions, muscle weakness, vision loss, numbness and paralysis.
And, though it's rare, West Nile virus can be deadly. Less than one percent of people infected with West Nile virus develop a serious neurologic illness such as encephalitis or meningitis (inflammation of the brain or of the membranes around the spinal cord and brain), says Lindsey, and around 10 percent of those people who develop neurologic infection due to West Nile virus will die. Conlon says there have been about about 13,000 meningitis/encephalitis cases resulting from West Nile virus. Calling it the "great untold story," he says these cases often result in permanent disability.
"If you develop symptoms of severe West Nile virus illness, such as unusually severe headaches or confusion, seek medical attention immediately," Lindsey advises.
What happens if you do get infected? "There are no medications or vaccines to treat or prevent West Nile virus infection," Lindsey says. "People with milder symptoms typically recover on their own, although the symptoms may last several weeks. In more severe cases, patients usually need to be hospitalized to receive supportive treatment including intravenous fluids, help with breathing and nursing care."
The easiest and best way to avoid West Nile virus disease, says Lindsey, is to prevent mosquito bites. Here are 6 ways to keep mosquitoes at bay this summer and into the autumn:
1. Use insect repellents whenever you go outdoors. Lindsay says repellents containing DEET, picaridin (like Avon's "Skin So Soft Bug Guard Plus Picaridin"), oil of lemon eucalyptus or IR3535 (an insect repellent that, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, has been used in Europe for 20 years with no substantial adverse effects) provide longer-lasting protection than other products. If you go for DEET, Conlon recommends looking for one that has 30% DEET.
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2. Dress smart. Long sleeves and pants, especially if treated with the repellant permethrin, can provide added protection from mosquito bites, says Lindsey.
3. Mosquito-proof your home. Lindsey says to use your air conditioning and install or repair screens on windows and doors to keep mosquitoes outside.
4. Help reduce the number of mosquitoes around your home. The most important thing to do is get rid of stagnant water. Lindsey recommends emptying standing water from flowerpots, gutters, buckets, pool covers, pet water dishes, discarded tires and birdbaths.
5. Planning to spend some time in the yard? Colon recommends scheduling your activities to avoid the times when mosquitoes are most active, usually dawn and dusk. You can also employ fans to keep your deck breezy. "Strategically placed floor fans providing a breeze across the area of concern will serve to keep the mosquitoes at bay," he says. "Mosquitoes are weak fliers, and will not be able to navigate properly against or within the airstream." There is no set formula for how large a fan or how many you'll need -- it's simply a matter of experimenting until you obtain the desired effect. By the way, citronella candles have a mild repellent effect, he says, but do not offer significantly more protection than other candles producing smoke.
6. Last but not least: "Support your local community mosquito control programs!" says Lindsey.
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