West Nile Virus in Children: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

A seasonal epidemic of West Nile virus (WNV) in North America occurs during the summer and fall months when mosquito bites are common. Children infected with the virus typically show no symptoms. The virus is transmitted most commonly by mosquito bites. There is no vaccine or treatment.

Many factors can influence the risk of contracting the West Nile virus:

  • Time spent Outdoor: A lot of time spent working or playing outdoors puts people at increased risk of contracting the West Nile virus since more mosquitoes carry the virus.
  • Time of year and day: Mosquitoes are most active at dusk and dawn, especially in damp or heavily wooded areas, thus increasing the possibility of WNV transmission in North America during July through September.
  • Geographic region: While West Nile virus cases have been reported in most U.S. states, the West and Midwest have reported the highest rates.

Related: Dengue in children: symptoms, causes, and treatments

West Nile virus: Symptoms?

West Nile virus rarely causes illness in children, but usually doing so is unlikely. Around 20 percent of patients with West Nile virus have flu-like symptoms, including:

  • headache
  • body aches
  • fever
  • tiredness
  • swollen lymph glands
  • joint pain
  • skin rash

The West Nile virus causes encephalitis, which may manifest as colds, sore throats, and digestive problems (nausea, vomiting, diarrhea).

Children develop encephalitis less than 1 percent of the time, which can cause brain damage and swell in the brain. The symptoms of encephalitis vary based on the location of inflammation, the degree of inflammation, the age of the patient, and the child’s general health. (Adults over 50, those with weakened immune systems resulting from cancer or organ transplants, and people with diabetes are at greater risk).

If you notice any abnormalities in your child’s behavior, see your pediatrician. Called for treatment if encephalitis develops. See a doctor if you notice any change in your child’s behavior after the mosquito bite.

A timely diagnosis of the West Nile virus can reduce complications and speeds up recovery.


What is the cause of the West Nile virus?

The disease is transmitted by mosquito bites only – no other insect such as birds or animals can transmit it or humans.

The West Nile virus has made its way through transfusions a few times, but the risk of catching it thanks to routine blood screening is very low. It has also been reported that pregnant women can pass the virus on to their unborn children.

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Diagnosis & Treatment of West Nile Virus

West Nile Virus: Diagnosis

A doctor will observe a child’s symptoms and inquire about their exposure to mosquitoes to determine whether they are at risk for WNV infection.

Immune system antibodies, which protect the body against harmful bacteria, viruses, and other organisms, are shown to be high in the case of West Nile virus infection, which can be diagnosed through blood tests.

To confirm the diagnosis of encephalitis, the following procedures should be performed:

  • Lumbar puncture (spinal tap): Spinal taps are performed using a special needle to extract a small portion of cerebral spinal fluid. Then you will send your sample for testing to detect the West Nile virus and other complications.
  • Electroencephalogram (EEG): The EEG measures the electrical activity in the brain by putting stickers on the scalp. A child will undergo an EEG to see if he or she has small seizures not visible to the naked eye.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): Brain inflammation can be detected through detailed X-ray images of the brain obtained using an MRI.

What is the treatment for the West Nile virus?

West Nile disease, not currently protected by a vaccine, nor can antibiotics effectively treat symptoms since they treat bacterial infections. Instead, surface-to-air medications, such as acetaminophen, are available over the counter for pain and fever relief.

West Nile virus infections can lead to encephalitis in children who are suffering from supportive therapies. Patients with encephalitis can expect to be hospitalized, except for very mild cases.

To prevent further inflammation of the brain, doctors must closely monitor the child’s blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing. Anticonvulsants, corticosteroids, and corticosteroid medications may be prescribed.

Children with encephalitis make full recoveries if they receive the right care.

What are the steps you can take to prevent this disease?

You can protect your child from the West Nile virus by avoiding mosquito bites. You can take these steps to prevent the virus:

  • Make sure you are wearing long sleeve clothes and have long pants, especially after dusk, when mosquitoes are more active.
  • It’s important not to go near puddles or other water sources that may hold standing water, such as gutters or wading pools. These spots may harbor mosquitoes.
  • Do not touch a dead bird with your hands too close to it or move it. Call your local health department. Empty buckets, flower pots, old tires, etc., to remove standing water.

A mosquito repellent is the most effective and easiest way to avoid getting bitten. DEET (usually listed on labels as N, N-diethyl-m-toluamide) is considered the best repellent against ticks and mosquitoes by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Children as young as 2 months of age can use products with as much as 30 percent DEET, although the AAP recommends against using it on infants younger than 2 months of age. Don’t apply DEET directly to the face or hands of any young child.

Additional insect repellant tips: Offered by the EPA:

  • If you are already wearing clothing, take caution to use insect repellent.
  • You should not apply repellant directly to your child’s face. Avoid touching the eyes and mouth of the child, but spray it on your hands and rub it gently.
  • It may be harmful to your child to put repellent on her hands because she could put them in her mouth or eyes.
  • Once you are inside, wash the repellent off.
  • It is better not to apply repellent to wounds or irritated skin.
  • Unless you are allergic to mosquito repellents, you should stop using them if you get a rash or other skin reaction. You should wash the repellent off and consult your doctor.