West Nile virus (WNV) is a mosquito-borne flavivirus which circulates in birds, horses and humans. An estimated 80% of WNV infections are asymptomatic. Fewer than 1% of infected persons develop neuroinvasive disease, which typically presents as encephalitis, meningitis, or acute flaccid paralysis. This study was conducted from January 2008 to June 2009 in Isfahan, Iran. Patients attending the emergency department with fever and loss of consciousness were consecutively included. Cerebrospinal fluids (CSF) were initially analysed through bacteriology and biochemistry examinations, resulting in those with evidence of meningitis being excluded. Patients' CSF and serum were diagnosed by serological and molecular assays. A total of 632 patients with fever and loss of consciousness were tested by CSF analyses. Samples of the remaining patients (39·4%) were referred for WNV investigation. Three (1·2%) of the patients were positive for both serum and CSF by RT–PCR, and six (2·4%) were positive only for IgG antibodies. History of insect bite, and blood transfusion and transplantation were risk factors for being positive by RT–PCR (P=0·048) and being IgG positive (P=0·024), respectively. The results of this study showed that the prevalence of West Nile fever is low in patients with encephalitis.