Dengue Fever

Medically Reviewed on 4/22/2022

Things to know about dengue fever

  • Dengue fever is a disease caused by a family of viruses transmitted by Aedes mosquitoes.
  • Symptoms of dengue fever include severe joint and muscle pain, swollen lymph nodes, headache, fever, exhaustion, and rash. The presence of fever, rash, and headache (the "dengue triad") is characteristic of dengue fever.
  • Dengue virus is prevalent throughout the tropics and subtropics.
  • A virus causes dengue fever, and there is no specific medicine or antibiotic to treat it. For typical dengue fever, the treatment is directed toward the relief of the symptoms (symptomatic treatment).
  • Papaya leaf extract can treat dengue fever.
  • The acute phase of the illness with fever and muscle pain lasts about one to two weeks.
  • Dengue hemorrhagic fever (DHF) is a specific syndrome that tends to affect children under 10 years of age. This complication of dengue causes abdominal pain, hemorrhage (bleeding), and circulatory collapse (shock).
  • The prevention of dengue fever requires the control or eradication of the mosquitoes carrying the virus that causes dengue.
  • The U.S. FDA approved Dengvaxia, a vaccine for dengue fever, in May 2019 for use in dengue-endemic areas.
  • Typical dengue infection is fatal in less than 1% of cases; however, the more severe dengue hemorrhagic fever is fatal in 2.5% of cases.
    • If dengue hemorrhagic fever is not treated, mortality (death) rates can be as high as 20%-50%.

What is dengue fever? What causes dengue fever?

Picture of Aedes albopictus mosquito
Picture of Aedes albopictus mosquito

Dengue fever is a disease caused by a family of viruses transmitted by infected mosquitoes. It is an acute illness of sudden onset that usually follows a benign course with symptoms such as headache, fever, exhaustion, severe muscle and joint pain, swollen lymph nodes (lymphadenopathy), and rash. The presence of fever, itchy rash and headache (the "dengue triad") is characteristic of dengue. Other signs of dengue fever include bleeding gums, severe pain behind the eyes (retro-orbital), and red palms and soles.

Dengue (pronounced DENG-gay) can affect anyone but tends to be more severe in people with compromised immune systems. Because one of five serotypes of the dengue virus causes dengue fever, it is possible to get dengue fever multiple times. However, an attack of dengue produces immunity for a lifetime to that particular viral dengue serotype to which the patient was exposed.

Dengue goes by other names, including "breakbone fever" or "dandy fever." Victims of dengue often have contortions due to the intense pain in the joints, muscles, and bones, hence the name breakbone fever. Slaves in the West Indies who contracted dengue were said to have a dandy fever because of their postures and gait.

Dengue hemorrhagic fever is a more severe form of viral illness. Symptoms include headache, fever, rash, and evidence of bleeding (hemorrhage) in the body. Petechiae (small red spots or purple splotches or blisters under the skin), bleeding in the nose or gums, black stools, or easy bruising are all possible signs of hemorrhage. This form of dengue fever can be life-threatening and can progress to the most severe form of the illness, dengue shock syndrome.


Dengue Fever See pictures of Bacterial Skin Conditions See Images

What geographic areas are at high risk for contracting dengue fever?

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the dengue virus is prevalent throughout the tropics and subtropics (subtropical areas). Outbreaks have occurred recently in the Caribbean, including Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Cuba, and Central America. Cases have also been imported via tourists returning from areas with widespread dengue, including Tahiti, Singapore, the South Pacific, the Philippines, Southeast Asia, the West Indies, India, and the Middle East (similar in distribution to the areas of the world that harbor malaria and yellow fever). Dengue is now the leading cause of acute febrile illness in U.S. travelers returning from the Caribbean, South America, and Asia.

  • From January to July 2017, Sri Lanka reported 80,732 cases of dengue fever, with 215 deaths.
  • New Delhi, India, reported an outbreak of dengue fever, with 1,872 testing positive for the illness in September 2015.
  • In American Samoa, there were 370 cases of dengue reported from May 2015 to Sept. 2, 2015, and 133 were hospitalized.
  • Thailand reported the worst dengue virus outbreak in 20 years, with 126 deaths and 135,344 people infected with the virus, in October 2013.
  • In 2011, Bolivia, Brazil, Columbia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, Peru, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela reported a large number of dengue cases. Paraguay reported a dengue fever outbreak in 2011, the worst since 2007. Hospitals were overcrowded, and patients had elective surgeries canceled due to the outbreak.

How do people contract dengue fever? Is dengue fever contagious?

The vector-borne dengue virus infection spreads via the bite of a striped Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus mosquito that has previously bitten an infected person. The mosquito flourishes during rainy seasons but can breed in water-filled flower pots, plastic bags, and cans year-round. One mosquito bite can cause the disease.

The virus is not contagious and cannot spread directly from person to person. It is mosquito-borne, so there must be a person-to-mosquito-to-another-person pathway. A mosquito bites a dengue-infected person and becomes infected with dengue. That mosquito then bites another person and passes the dengue virus infection to that person. The full life cycle of the virus involves the Aedes mosquito as the vector (transmitter) and the human as the source of infection.

Avoiding mosquitos is important to avoid contracting dengue fever. In dengue-endemic tropical and sub-tropical areas, you should wear light-colored long-sleeved shirts and long pants or trousers, use insect repellant, stay or sleep indoors in air conditioning when possible, and use mosquito netting over the bed if available.

Dengue is not a tick-borne illness. Only the bite of an infected mosquito can transmit dengue.

What is the incubation period for dengue fever?

After being bitten by a mosquito carrying the virus, the incubation period for dengue fever ranges from 3 to 15 (usually 5 to 8) days before the signs and symptoms of dengue appear in stages.

What are dengue fever symptoms and signs?

Dengue fever starts with non-specific flu-like symptoms of chills, headache, pain in the back of the eyes that may worsen upon moving the eyes, appetite loss, feeling unwell (malaise), and low backache.

  • Painful aching in the legs and joints occurs during the first hours of illness.
  • The temperature rises quickly as high as 104 F (40 C), with relatively low heart rate (bradycardia) and
  • low blood pressure (hypotension).
  • The eyes redden.
  • A flushing or pale pink rash comes over the face and then disappears.
  • The lymph nodes in the neck and groin are often swollen.
  • High fever and other signs of dengue last for 2 to 4 days, followed by a rapid drop in body temperature (defervescence) with profuse sweating.
  • This precedes a period with normal temperature and a sense of well-being that lasts about a day.
  • A second rapid rise in temperature follows.
  • A characteristic itchy rash (small red spots, called petechiae) appears along with the fever and spreads from the extremities to cover the entire body except for the face.
  • The palms and soles may be bright red and swollen.

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What tests do healthcare providers use to diagnose dengue fever?

Medical professionals usually make a diagnosis of dengue fever infection when a patient exhibits the typical clinical symptoms and signs of headache, high fever, eye pain, severe muscle aches, and petechial rash and has a history of being in an area where dengue fever is endemic. Dengue fever can be difficult to diagnose because its symptoms overlap with those of many other viral illnesses and tropical diseases, such as the West Nile virus and chikungunya fever.

Health care professionals may use a blood test called the DENV Detect IgM Capture ELISA to diagnose people with dengue fever. The FDA notes that the test may also give a positive result when a person has a closely related virus, such as West Nile disease.

What is the treatment for dengue fever?

Because a virus causes dengue fever, there are no specific antibiotics to treat it. Antiviral medications are also not indicated for dengue fever. For typical dengue, the treatment is concerned with the relief of the symptoms and signs.

  • Home remedies such as rest and fluid intake (oral rehydration) are important.
  • Only take pain relievers such as aspirin and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) under a doctor's supervision because of the possibility of worsening bleeding complications.
  • Acetaminophen (Tylenol) and codeine may be given for severe headaches and for joint and muscle pain (myalgia).

Patients hospitalized for dengue may receive IV fluids.

In several clinical studies, researchers proved that Carica papaya leaf extract (papaya leaf) is an effective treatment for dengue fever.

What types of doctors treat dengue fever?

A primary care provider (PCP), such as your family practitioner or internist, can treat your dengue fever symptoms. A pediatrician can treat your child. If symptoms are severe, you may see an emergency medicine doctor in a hospital emergency department.

If your doctor is not familiar with treating dengue fever or your symptoms are severe, you may see an infectious disease specialist or a travel medicine physician.

How long does dengue fever last?

The acute phase of dengue with fever and muscle pain (myalgia) lasts about one to two weeks. A feeling of weakness (asthenia) and fatigue accompany convalescence, and full recovery often takes several weeks.

What is the prognosis for typical dengue fever?

The prognosis for dengue is usually good. The worst symptoms of the illness typically last 1 to 2 weeks, and most patients will fully recover within several additional weeks.

Typical dengue infection is fatal in less than 1% of cases; however, the more severe dengue hemorrhagic fever is fatal in 2.5% of cases. If dengue hemorrhagic fever is not treated, mortality (death) rates can be as high as 20%-50%.

What is dengue hemorrhagic fever?

Dengue hemorrhagic fever (DHF or dengue hemorrhagic fever) is a specific syndrome that tends to affect children under 10 years of age. This complication of severe dengue fever causes abdominal pain, hemorrhage (bleeding), and circulatory collapse (shock). DHF is also called Philippine, Thai, or Southeast Asian hemorrhagic fever or dengue shock syndrome.

DHF starts abruptly with continuous high fever and headache. There are respiratory and intestinal symptoms with a sore throat, cough, nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. Shock occurs 2 to 6 days after the start of symptoms with sudden collapse, cool, clammy extremities (the trunk is often warm), weak pulse, and blueness around the mouth (circumoral cyanosis).

In DHF, there is bleeding with easy bruising, red or purple blood spots in the skin (petechiae), spitting up blood (hematemesis), blood in the stool (melena), bleeding gums, and nosebleeds (epistaxis). Pneumonia is common, and inflammation of the heart (myocarditis) may be present.

People must closely monitor patients with DHF for the first few days since shock may occur or recur precipitously (dengue shock syndrome). Medical professionals will give cyanotic (having a bluish coloration to the skin and mucus membranes) patients oxygen. Vascular collapse (shock) requires immediate fluid replacement. Blood transfusions can control bleeding.

The mortality (death) rate with DHF is significant. With proper treatment, the World Health Organization estimates a 2.5% mortality rate. However, without proper treatment, the mortality rate rises to 20%. Most deaths occur in children. Infants under 1 year of age are especially at risk of dying from DHF.

Is it possible to prevent dengue fever with a vaccine?

In April 2016, the WHO approved Sanofi Pasteur's Dengvaxia (CYD-TDV), a live recombinant tetravalent vaccine for dengue fever. Dengvaxia can be administered as a three-dose series in people 9-45 years of age who live in areas where dengue is endemic.

In clinical trials in Latin America and Asia involving more than 40,000 children and adolescents, Dengvaxia protected 66% of people aged 9 and older against dengue. Dengvaxia was very effective at protecting against severe dengue, which can be fatal, preventing 93% of severe cases, and reducing hospitalizations due to dengue by 80%.

Health officials initially approved Dengvaxia in 2015 for use only in Mexico, the Philippines, Brazil, and El Salvador. In May 2019, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the use of Dengvaxia for the prevention of dengue caused by all dengue virus serotypes (DENV-1, DENV-2, DENV-3, and DENV-4 -- sometimes also referred to as DEN-1, DEN-2, DEN-3, and DEN-4) in people ages 9 through 16 who have laboratory-confirmed previous dengue infection and who live in endemic areas. In the U.S., dengue is endemic in the territories of American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Several other vaccines for dengue are undergoing clinical trials, but none have yet been approved for use.

Where can people get more information on dengue fever?

"Dengue," Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Medically Reviewed on 4/22/2022
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