Dengue fever: Symptoms, treatment, and prevention

Dengue fever, also known as breakbone fever, is a mosquito-borne infection that can lead to a severe flu-like illness. It is caused by four different viruses and spread by Aedes mosquitoes.

Symptoms range from mild to severe. Severe symptoms include dengue shock syndrome (DSS) and dengue hemorrhagic fever (DHF). These usually require hospitalization.

There are currently no vaccines. The best method of prevention is to avoid mosquito bites. Treatment is possible if diagnosis occurs before the patient develops DSS or DHF.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that 400 million people are infected each year.

Dengue fever is rare in the United States (U.S.), but around 100 cases are reported each year, mostly among people traveling from outside the country. Outbreaks have occurred in Texas, Florida, and Hawaii.

Fast facts on Dengue fever

Here are some key points about dengue fever. More detail is in the main article.

Dengue is transmitted by the mosquitoes Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus, which are found throughout the world.

Around 2.5 billion people, or 40 percent of the world’s population, live in areas where there is a risk of dengue transmission.

Dengue is endemic in at least 100 countries in Asia, the Pacific, the Americas, Africa, and the Caribbean.

Symptoms usually begin 4 to 7 days after the mosquito bite and typically last 3 to 10 days.

Effective treatment is possible if a clinical diagnosis is made early.

Signs and symptoms

Mosquitoes spread dengue fever.
Mosquitoes spread dengue fever.

Symptoms vary depending on the severity of the disease.

Mild dengue fever

Symptoms can appear up to 7 days after being bitten by the mosquito that carries the virus.

They include:

aching muscles and joints

body rash that can disappear and then reappear

high fever

intense headache

pain behind the eyes

vomiting and feeling nauseous

Symptoms usually disappear after a week, and mild dengue rarely involves serious or fatal complications.

Dengue hemorrhagic fever

At first, symptoms of DHF may be mild, but they gradually worsen within a few days. As well as mild dengue symptoms, there may be signs of internal bleeding.

dengue fever mosquito bites

Early dengue fever rash

early dengue fever rash
Image credit: Ranjan Premaratna, (2014).

Dengue fever recovery rash

dengue recovery rash
Image credit: Ranjan Premaratna, (2012).

Aedes aegypti mosquito

Aedes aegypti mosquito dengue rash
Image credit: CDC/James Gathany, (2005).

Treatment

Dengue is a virus, so there is no specific treatment or cure. However, intervention can help, depending on how severe the disease is.

For milder forms, treatment includes:

Preventing dehydration: A high fever and vomiting can dehydrate the body. The person should drink clean water, ideally bottled rather than tap water. Rehydration salts can also help replace fluids and minerals.

Painkillers, such as Tylenol or paracetamol: These can help lower fever and ease pain.

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as aspirin or ibuprofen, are not advised, as they can increase the risk of internal bleeding.

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