TOLONO — There was a time when Beth Swigart didn't pay that much attention to West Nile virus and the annual warnings about mosquito bites.
That's changed since she got West Nile virus herself last fall and was ill for months.
The 55-year-old Tolono woman spent 23 days in the hospital, and she still has no memory of the first few days, she said.
She missed about three months of work. And even by the day after Thanksgiving — about a month after she was discharged from the hospital — she still lacked the stamina to go Black Friday shopping on foot and had to use a wheelchair.
"It was rough," she said about the ordeal. "But I feel very fortunate, because there are some cases I've heard of where people still aren't functioning right."
Swigart had one of the 176 human cases of West Nile virus in Illinois last year, two of which were in Champaign County. Statewide, 17 of the cases were fatal.
West Nile virus is spread by the bites of infected mosquitoes, and for most people, it doesn't become a serious illness.
About 20 percent of those bitten by infected mosquitoes develop some symptoms, and Swigart was among the 1 percent of people who develop serious neurological complications — in her case, encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain.
Swigart said she doesn't recall even being bitten by a mosquito last fall. The serious effects began Oct. 1, 2018, following some flu-like illness and rash on her arms and chest.
She had driven to Tuscola to take her dog to a regular grooming appointment, and she began feeling confused on the way home, she recalled. Her face had also turned a beet-red color.
When she got back to Tolono, she began driving around in circles in the parking lot of the Monical's Pizza restaurant she and her husband own, and somewhere on the way home, she'd also hit a utility pole — though she has no memory of that, she said.
Nor does she remember her husband taking her to Carle Foundation Hospital emergency room.
What she does recall is the crushing headache pain and nausea she had and learning there aren't any antiviral treatments for West Nile virus — just supportive care such as pain medicine and IV fluids.
"It just had to work its way out," she said.
Swigart also recalled being asked to sign papers in the hospital, and being unable to write her own name. She needed the help of a walker to get around, and she needed speech, occupational and physical therapies after she was discharged from the hospital to help with the cognitive and physical impacts of her illness.
Also a hair stylist, Swigart said she'd regained enough strength by the week before Christmas to see a few clients.
"By Christmas, I was doing better," she said.
She still becomes fatigued, though.
"They say it can take a year for it to be out of your system," she said. "It's quite an ordeal."
Weather conditions over the next couple of months will determine what kind of West Nile virus season it will be this year, according to Jeff Blackford, program coordinator with the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District. Hot, dry weather boosts West Nile activity, he said.
The public health district has set mosquito traps in and around Champaign-Urbana. The district tests the female Culex mosquitoes it collects for West Nile virus and keeps the public updated at its website.
The primary vector of West Nile virus, Culex mosquitoes typically rest during the daytime and wait until dusk to begin biting. They lay their eggs on still water, which is why experts also advise getting rid of all standing water sources around the house.
Since Swigart likes to be outdoors a lot, she's being more careful this year to guard against mosquito bites — for example, trying to avoid being outside after dusk.
She also urges others to protect themselves against West Nile virus infection.
"I just don't want to ever experience it again," she said.
By the numbers
4: East Central Illinois counties that had human cases last year — two in Champaign and one in each of Coles, Edgar and Ford.
12: About how many patients in the Carle health system are tested for West Nile virus in a year.
18, 91: Ages of the youngest and oldest people with West Nile virus in Illinois last year.
Avoid the bite
Four West Nile prevention tips from the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District:
1. Drain standing water from gutters, birdbaths, flower pots and other areas around your home.
2. Repair screens to help keep mosquitoes out.
3. Wear insect repellent when you’re outdoors.
4. Cover up with clothing, and spray clothing with repellent especially after dusk. Mosquitoes may bite through thin clothing.