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Dengue Fever

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.

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 continental United States, but it is common in some American territories such as Puerto Rico, American Samoa, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. It can also happen in the U.S. when someone gets infected in another country and then travels or immigrates to the U.S.

How Do People Get Dengue Fever?

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 & Symptoms of Dengue Fever?

Dengue fever used to be called "breakbone fever," which might give you an idea of the severe bone and muscle pain it sometimes can cause. The fever isn't actually breaking any bones, but it can sometimes feel like it is.

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:

  • high fever
  • pain behind the eyes and in the joints, muscles, and/or bones
  • severe headache
  • rash
  • bleeding from the nose or gums
  • bruising easily

Some people can get a more serious form of the infection called dengue hemorrhagic fever. They'll 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. People with dengue hemorrhagic fever need to be treated in a medical facility immediately.

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 problems. 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?

A dengue vaccine is recommended in the U.S. for kids and teens 9–16 years old who have already had dengue fever and who live in the U.S. territories where it is common. It is not recommended for travelers to these areas. Visit the CDC's site for more information.

Another way to protect yourself from dengue fever is by avoiding mosquito bites. If you live in or plan to visit an area where there's dengue fever:

  • 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 repellent as directed. Choose one 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. They 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.

Because the infection is common in tropical and subtropical areas, take precautions when visiting those regions.

Reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD
Date Reviewed: Feb 22, 2022

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