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Dengue fever

Dengue fever is spread by the bite of a mosquito and causes an illness which can be a little like flu. Most people with dengue fever have symptoms which can be managed at home. However, occasionally, it can be quite a severe illness needing hospital care. It occurs in many tropical countries and can affect people from the UK who are travelling abroad.

Dengue fever is a viral illness that’s passed on by the Aedes mosquito, a type of mosquito which bites mainly during the daytime. This mosquito doesn’t live in the UK. It's found in many countries throughout the world and is particularly common in South East Asia, India, the Caribbean, South and Central America, and Africa. If you travel to one of these areas and don't protect yourself against mosquito bites, you may be at risk of catching dengue fever.

Most people in the UK who catch dengue fever have travelled to South-East Asia and India. In 2012, 343 people were diagnosed with dengue fever in the UK. All were people who had recently returned from travelling abroad.

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Map showing world dengue fever distribution

Details

  • Symptoms Symptoms of dengue fever

    The exact symptoms you get may depend on your age.

    In older children, teenagers and adults, the most common symptoms of dengue are:

    • a fever that comes on quickly and lasts two to seven days
    • a headache – but this usually isn’t severe
    • muscle and joint pain – dengue fever is also known as ‘breakbone fever’
    • a red rash that starts on your chest, back or stomach and spreads to your limbs and face
    • pain behind your eyes
    • feeling sick and vomiting
    • loss of appetite

    The symptoms of dengue fever usually begin between five and eight days after you get bitten by an infected mosquito. However, the illness can be so mild that you don’t notice any symptoms at all.

    Young children with dengue often have a fever with a rash, but other symptoms are minor.

    These symptoms can be caused by problems other than dengue fever. If you’ve recently travelled to an area that’s affected by dengue fever and have any of these symptoms, contact your GP. Remember to tell them that you’ve been travelling and where so that they know it could be dengue fever.

  • Diagnosis Diagnosis of dengue fever

    Your GP will ask about your symptoms and examine you. Tell them if you’ve recently travelled abroad and whether you’ve been exposed to mosquitoes. It can be difficult for your GP to diagnose dengue fever because the symptoms are similar to many other bacterial and viral infections.

    If your GP suspects you have dengue fever, he or she may ask you to have a blood test. This is to see whether you have signs of the virus in your blood and/or certain antibodies for dengue fever. These can confirm whether you have the infection. Your blood will be sent to a laboratory for testing.

  • Treatment Treatment of dengue fever

    There isn't a specific treatment for dengue fever. However, but your body will usually fight off the virus within three to four days of the rash appearing.

    Self-help

    There are things you can do to help your recovery.

    • Rest and drink enough fluids. Your GP may suggest that you take oral rehydration salts to help prevent you becoming dehydrated.
    • Take paracetamol to help relieve your pain and reduce your fever. Don’t take aspirin or ibuprofen as this can worsen any bleeding you may have. Always read the patient information leaflet that comes with your medicine and if you have any questions, ask your pharmacist for advice.

    Hospital treatment

    If you're severely dehydrated, have severe symptoms of dengue haemorrhagic fever or your symptoms suddenly become worse, you’ll need to be admitted to hospital. You may need to have fluids through a drip in your arm. Most people make a full recovery if they receive the right treatment.

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  • Causes Causes of dengue fever

    Dengue fever is caused by a type of virus called a flavivirus, which is transmitted by infected female Aedes mosquitoes. You can catch the virus if you get bitten by one. Mosquitoes become infected when they bite an infected person. They are able to pass on the virus for the rest of their life (two to three months). Dengue fever isn’t passed directly from person to person.

    There are four different but closely related types (serotypes) of the flavivirus that cause dengue fever. Once you’ve been infected by one type of the virus you become immune against that type for the rest of your life. However, getting infected with one type of the virus doesn't protect you against catching one of the other three types.

  • Complications Complications of dengue fever

    Dengue fever can sometimes develop into a serious, potentially fatal illness. It’s most likely to happen in children under 15. This is rare in the UK though because it’s thought only to occur if you’re infected again.

    • Dengue haemorrhagic fever (DHF). Symptoms include bleeding from under your skin, your gums and nose. You may also vomit blood or pass blood in your faeces. Your risk of developing DHF increases with the number of repeated infections you have with the different types of dengue virus. This means that people who live in areas where dengue fever is regularly found are more likely to be affected.
    • Dengue shock syndrome (DSS). Symptoms include severe pain in your abdomen (tummy), vomiting, feeling irritable and a drop in body temperature.

    If you have any of these symptoms, you must seek urgent medical attention.

  • Prevention Prevention of dengue fever

    At the moment, there aren’t any vaccines or medicines to prevent dengue fever. The only way to prevent catching it is to protect yourself from getting bitten by mosquitoes. Advice for avoiding mosquito bites is as follows.

    • Wear light-coloured, loose-fitting, protective clothing that covers as much of your body as possible during the daytime and especially at dawn and dusk. 
    • Use an insect repellent on areas of your skin that are exposed and on your clothing – especially around loose parts such as collars or cuffs. Repellents containing a chemical known as DEET (N, N-diethylmetatoluamide) are thought to be the best.
    • Use plug-in devices with insecticides in them to kill mosquitoes.
    • Sleep under a mosquito net treated with insecticides to avoid being bitten while in bed.
    • Avoid areas where mosquitoes breed (normally in standing water in domestic containers and around urban areas). Try to remove such sources of water or cover them up.

    It's most important to follow these precautions around dawn and dusk, as this is when the Aedes mosquito is most active. However, it's important to remember that the Aedes mosquito can bite at any time of the day or night. Make sure you always take the necessary precautions to help reduce your risk of catching dengue fever.

  • FAQs FAQs

    Can I catch dengue fever from another person?

    Answer

    No, you can't catch dengue fever from another person just by being in close contact with them. Very rarely, dengue fever can be passed on through organ transplants, blood transfusions or from an infected mother to her unborn child.

    Explanation

    Dengue fever is passed on through the bite of an infected Aedes mosquito. You can't catch the disease directly through being in close contact with another person. However it can be spread more easily by mosquitoes when people live in crowded conditions. Some evidence has shown that the virus may be able to pass from pregnant, infected mothers to their unborn children, but this is very unlikely to happen. If you're pregnant and think you may have dengue fever, see your GP for advice.

    If you have dengue fever, you should take extra care to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes to help stop the spread of the disease to others. For ways to prevent getting bitten if you're infected see prevention of dengue fever.

    If you need more information, speak to your GP or a health professional at a travel clinic.

    What are my chances of getting dengue fever if I travel to an affected area?

    Answer

    There are several different factors that can affect your chances of getting dengue fever. These include where you're travelling to, how long you're staying and what time of the year you travel.

    Explanation

    It's difficult to say for certain what your individual risk of catching dengue fever is – everyone who travels to an area where the virus is present is at some level of risk. Dengue fever is becoming more common worldwide. It’s now in over 100 countries, with cases increasing by 30 times over the last 50 years. Travellers who spend a long time in areas where dengue fever is common (such as expatriates or aid workers) have a greater risk. However, even short-term visitors may still be at risk.

    The seasons can affect how active mosquitoes are and how many there are. If you’re in a country that has dengue fever and you’re there during the rainy season, there’s a chance your risk may be higher.

    The best advice is to always protect yourself from getting mosquito bites if you're travelling to an affected area. For measures to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes see prevention of dengue fever.

    What concentration of DEET should I use?

    Answer

    This depends on the amount of exposure to dengue fever you're likely to have and the type of protection from mosquito bites you prefer.

    Explanation

    Products containing DEET are available in several different concentrations – the higher the concentration, the longer the duration of protection. Concentrations of 20 percent DEET have been shown to provide about one to three hours of protection and higher concentrations provide longer-lasting protection. However, the duration of action appears to level off at a concentration of about 50 percent. This means that concentrations above 50 percent don't give you any added benefit. Therefore, it's generally not necessary to use products of a higher concentration than this.

    The use of DEET-containing products isn't advised for babies under two months. DEET-based products are considered safe if you're pregnant or breastfeeding; however, it’s advisable to stick to those with a concentration of 50 percent or less.

    You should always use any DEET-containing products according to the manufacturer's instructions, especially since some manufacturers will advise about their own age restrictions.

  • Resources Resources

    Further information


    Sources

    • Kumar P, Clark M. Clinical medicine. 8th ed. Edinburgh: Saunders; 2012
    • Dengue fever. BMJ Best practice. www.bestpractice.bmj.com, published 26 February 2014
    • Dengue fever. Public Health England. www.hpa.org.uk, accessed 3 July 2014
    • Travel health information sheets: dengue fever. National Travel Health Network and Centre. www.nathnac.org, published May 2013
    • Travel health information sheets: insect and tick bite avoidance. National Travel Health Network and Centre. www.nathnac.org, published May 2013
    • Dengue. World Health Organisation. www.who.int, accessed 3 July 2014
    • Comprehensive guidelines for prevention and control of dengue and dengue haemorrhagic fever – revised and expanded edition. World Health Organization, 2011. www.who.int
    • Global strategy for dengue prevention and control 2012–2020. World Health Organization, 2012. www.who.int
    • Dengue. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. www.cdc.gov, reviewed 31 December 2013
    • Dengue. Medscape. www.emedicine.medscape.com, published 14 March 2014
    • Fitfortravel. Health Protection Scotland and NHS National Services Scotland. www.fitfortravel.nhs.uk, accessed 8 July 2014
  • Related information Related information

  • Author information Author information

    Reviewed by Natalie Heaton, Bupa Health Information Team, August 2014.

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