Mind and Body

West Nile infections on the rise: How to protect yourself

Mosquitoes can be a nuisance all summer long; however, typically towards the end of summer into early fall, they can be particularly bothersome.  Not only do their bites result in itchy, red bumps, they also have the potential to transmit West Nile virus.  

The first case of West Nile in the United States was in the New York City borough Queens in 1999.  Over the past thirteen years, the number of yearly infections, and deaths, has steadily increased from about 62 cases in 1 state (in 1999) to approximately 693 cases in 43 states (to date) – this is the highest number of cases reported to the CDC since 1999.  

Almost half of the cases this year have occurred in Texas, prompting state officials to declare a state of emergency.  

You might be wondering to yourself, 693 cases of West Nile doesn’t seem too severe – more people get the flu each year.  So why are we so concerned about West Nile infections?

West Nile is a potentially serious illness that presents as a seasonal epidemic in North America from summer into fall.  Approximately 80 percent of all cases are asymptomatic, meaning that you may be infected with West Nile virus, but you don’t show any symptoms.  

Up to 20 percent of all cases will develop mild flu-like symptoms: fever, headache, body aches, nausea, etc.  About 1 in 150 cases will present with severe illness including high fever, headache, neck stiffness, muscle weakness, numbness and paralysis.

West Nile is most often spread by the bite of an infected mosquito.  Thus, the best way to avoid infection is to minimize exposure to mosquitoes.  The best way to avoid West Nile infection is to remember the 5 D’s:

DEET – always make sure your insect repellent contains this compound and don’t forget to spray your skin AND your clothes!

Dress up – wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants whenever you are outdoors.

Dusk & Dawn – are the two times of day when mosquitoes are most active.  If you can avoid going out during these hours, do so.  If you need to be outside during these hours, follow the two D’s above.

Drainage – mosquitoes breed in standing water.  To prevent their spread, empty any standing water from around your home.  These include flower pots, watering cans, pet dishes, bird baths, tire swings and children’s wading pools, just to name a few.

If you experience any of the symptoms of a severe illness, contact your physician immediately: serious West Nile infections may warrant hospitalization.  Keep in mind there is no reason to panic, just protect yourself.

Dr. Samadi is a board-certified urologic oncologist trained in open and traditional and laparoscopic surgery and is an expert in robotic prostate surgery. He is chairman of urology, chief of robotic surgery at Lenox Hill Hospital and professor of urology at Hofstra North Shore-LIJ School of Medicine. He is a medical correspondent for the Fox News Channel's Medical A-Team and the chief medical correspondent for am970 in New York City. Learn more at roboticoncology.com. Visit Dr. Samadi's blog at SamadiMD.com. Follow Dr. Samadi on Twitter and Facebook.