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Dengue fever

Key points

  • Dengue fever is a flu-like illness that’s caused by a virus and is spread by mosquitoes.
  • You may be at risk if you travel to areas including South East Asia, India, the Caribbean, South and Central America, and Africa.
  • There’s no vaccine against dengue fever, and no specific treatment.
  • Most people recover after a brief illness, but rarely you may need hospital treatment.
  • You can reduce your chance of getting dengue fever by taking measures to prevent mosquito bites.

Featured FAQ

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

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.

See all our FAQs on 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.

About dengue fever

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.

Illustration showing the distribution of dengue fever throughout the world

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.

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.

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.
 

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.

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 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.

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.

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

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For answers to frequently asked questions on this topic, see FAQs.

For sources and links to further information, see Resources.

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  • This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The content is intended only for general information and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the about our health information page.

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