If you live in a tropical country or you’ve visited one, you may have heard of a disease called dengue fever. Dengue fever might sound exotic, but its nickname — breakbone fever — is anything but. So what do you need to know about it?
What Is Dengue Fever?
Dengue (pronounced: DEN-gee) fever is an infectious disease. It can cause high fevers, headaches, rashes, and pain throughout the body. Although dengue fever can be very painful, it’s not usually fatal. Most people who get it start feeling better after several days and recover fully in a couple of weeks.
In some cases, dengue fever can turn into something more serious known as dengue hemorrhagic fever. This can cause bleeding, vomiting, belly pain, and even death. People with dengue hemorrhagic fever need to be treated in a medical facility immediately.
Dengue fever is common in tropical and subtropical climates. It’s a big problem in some countries in Latin America and Southeast Asia. Dengue fever is rare in the United States, but it can happen.
How Do People Get It?
When a mosquito bites a person who has dengue fever, the mosquito becomes infected with the virus that causes the disease. It can then spread the virus to other people by biting them.
Dengue fever is not contagious, so it can’t spread directly from person to person. Since different viruses can cause dengue fever, someone can get the disease more than once.
What Are the Signs and Symptoms?
Dengue is also sometimes called “breakbone fever,” which might give you an idea of how painful it can be. The disease isn’t actually breaking any bones, but it can feel like it is because of the joint and muscle pain.
Symptoms of dengue fever usually appear 4 to 14 days after someone has been infected. Some people infected with the virus won’t have any symptoms. Others will have symptoms for 2 to 7 days before getting better.
A person with dengue fever may notice these things:
- high fever
- pain behind the eyes and in the joints, muscles, and/or bones
- severe headache
- bleeding from the nose or gums
- bruises that form easily
Dengue Hemorrhagic Fever
People with dengue hemorrhagic fever have the regular symptoms of dengue fever for 2 to 7 days. After the fever goes down, they may notice these additional symptoms:
- nausea and vomiting
- severe abdominal pain
- difficulty breathing
- severe bleeding
If dengue hemorrhagic fever is not treated right away, a person can have heavy bleeding and a drop in blood pressure, and could even die.
When Should I Call a Doctor?
If you think you might have dengue fever, call a doctor right away. You also should call a doctor if you develop symptoms of the infection after going to a region that has dengue fever.
A doctor (or nurse practitioner) will examine you. He or she will ask you questions about how you’re feeling, your medical history, and recent travels. Your doctor might want you to give a blood sample to test for the disease.
If you’ve been diagnosed with dengue, call your doctor or get to a hospital emergency room right away if your symptoms get worse or if new symptoms appear, especially in the day or two after the fever goes down.
How Is Dengue Fever Treated?
For mild cases, doctors usually recommend drinking plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration, getting lots of rest, and taking acetaminophen to relieve the fever and pain. People with dengue shouldn’t take medicines with aspirin or ibuprofen, which can make bleeding more likely.
Most cases of dengue fever will go away within a couple of weeks and won’t cause any long-term complications. But dengue hemorrhagic fever requires treatment in a hospital with intravenous (IV) fluids and close monitoring. That’s why it’s really important to call a doctor or go to the ER if symptoms are severe or get worse in the first day or two after the fever goes away. (That’s when dengue hemorrhagic fever is most likely to develop.)
How Can I Prevent Dengue Fever?
You can help keep yourself free of dengue fever by avoiding mosquito bites. That’s not always easy, though. If you live in or will be visiting an area where there’s dengue fever, it helps to take these precautions:
- Use screens on doors and windows. Repair broken or damaged screens quickly. Keep unscreened doors and windows shut.
- Wear long-sleeved shirts, long pants, shoes, and socks when you go outside.
- Use mosquito netting over your bed at night.
- Use an insect repellant as directed. Choose a repellant with DEET or oil of lemon eucalyptus.
- Limit the amount of time you spend outside during the day, especially in the hours around dawn and dusk, when mosquitoes are most active.
- Don’t give mosquitoes places to breed. Mosquitoes lay their eggs in water. So get rid of standing water in things like wading pools and gutters. Change the water in birdbaths, dog bowls, and flower vases every few days.
There is no vaccine against dengue fever yet. Since the infection is common in tropical and subtropical areas, take precautions when visiting those regions to avoid the disease.
Reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD
Date reviewed: September 2014