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What is Dengue Fever?

By Alison McAdams
Updated Feb 18, 2024
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Dengue fever is a viral infection that is carried predominately by mosquitoes and is most prevalent in tropical climates. There are actually four related strains of the dengue virus that can cause this fever, but they are so closely related that researchers and epidemiologists usually group them all together under the broad “dengue fever” heading. Infection isn’t usually fatal, though it tends to be very unpleasant. Victims often suffer prolonged headaches, nausea, and itchy skin rash; muscle and joint pain is also common. It is not possible for people to spread the fever amongst themselves as it is only transmitted by mosquitoes. Only mosquitoes in certain geographical regions, predominately in the tropics of Asia and Africa, are known to carry the virus, too. There is no known cure for the condition, but it most cases it will go away on its own after a week or so. The best way for people to avoid exposure is to shield themselves from mosquitoes, including wearing repellants and sleeping under nets.

Transmission Basics

Dengue viruses are transmitted exclusively by Aedes mosquitoes. This means that in order for someone to get infected, he or she must be bitten by a “carrying” insect. Mosquitoes contract the disease initially from contaminated water sources and, in some cases, other animals, then pass it along in their saliva and fluids that are transferred in the process of a bite. The bite actually transmits the small amount of blood necessary to spread the illness.

Sharing bodily fluids with an infected person is not enough to cause the disease to spread. It is exclusively blood-born. Theoretically, sharing blood with an infected person could lead to secondary infection, but the circumstances in which this could happen are very rare. As such, healthcare workers and caregivers aren’t usually considered to be at risk.

Prevalence and Problem Areas

Dengue doesn’t occur everywhere. The fever is all but non-existent in Europe, for instance, and most of the world’s northern climates have no reported cases most years. The disease is rampant in many tropical climates, however, including much of India and Southeast Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and the Caribbean. The viruses causing dengue seem to thrive in these moist, warm environments, and the mosquitoes that carry them tend to have very long life spans in these places.

Symptoms

Infection usually becomes symptomatic five or six days after the infecting bite. The first symptoms are a high fever, generally 104° to 105°F (40°C), vomiting, nausea, and a headache. Joint and muscular pain follow within the next days, and a flat, red rash may appear and spread from the torso to the limbs and face. The severe pains most victims experience have led to the fever being called break-bone fever in many communities.

Despite their intensity, most symptoms of the disease subside within about a week of their onset. Most patients are expected to make a full recovery, particularly if they get treatment promptly. It’s sometimes the case that exposure once can lead to immunity later on, particularly for children. People need to remember, though, that the disease is cause by any one of four related strains, and immunity to one won’t usually protect against the others.

Treatment and Prognosis

There isn’t usually a cure for dengue fever, though quick treatment has been credited with lessening the symptoms of many sufferers. Diagnosis is usually made through blood tests that scan for antibodies to dengue viruses. Once these are identified, patients can take antiviral drugs and pain medications.

Rare Complications

In a small number of cases, the fever advances beyond its initial state and becomes a much more serious condition known as dengue hemorrhagic fever. This secondary condition usually develops if the virus penetrates the soft tissues of the body, like the lymph nodes. It has a much higher fatality rate in children and individuals with suppressed immune systems, and can cause intense complications for others.

Every year, some 20 million people contract dengue fever leading to roughly 24,000 deaths worldwide. About 100 infections are reported annually in the U.S., mostly from travelers returning from the tropics.

Protection Strategies

The best way for people to protect themselves from dengue and its complications is to shield themselves from carrying mosquitoes. Wearing long clothing is usually a good place to start, as is sleeping under nets and keeping screens on external windows whenever possible. Wearing repellant and staying indoors at sunrise and dusk, two of mosquitoes’ most favored times to bite, can also help.

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Discussion Comments
By indigomoth — On Nov 19, 2012
@anon68683 - I imagine it came from the same places that any other viruses came from, it evolved. I don't know for sure where Dengue came from but a lot of viruses originally infect other animals, and then one of them mutates slightly so that it can infect humans and away it goes.

It might have originally only been found in mosquitoes and then discovered that it could move from host to host by hitching a ride in humans. Or maybe it was the other way around.

It's been around for a long time, so it's impossible now to know exactly how it evolved, as they can change so quickly. There are lots of viruses in the world that jump between hosts like this, particularly mosquitoes since they provide the perfect vector.

By KoiwiGal — On Nov 19, 2012

@anon24818 - I believe Dengue fever virus has been around for a long time. They were describing it hundreds of years ago, and it is transmitted by mosquitoes which of course are not a modern phenomenon.

It's probably been spread further by the spread of people, particularly in airplanes, because it's much easier for a sick person, or an infected mosquito to travel by air than by caravan or ship.

By anon96162 — On Jul 14, 2010

Had Dengue fever 103 F. Starts with mild fever with back pain and neck pain. in a day or two it went to 103 F with intense muscle pain, headache, delusions. After five days temperature went normal, felt great for a day. Rashes appeared on hands and neck so I went to see a doctor in mumbai India and he immediately diagnosed dengue and low platelets count 110 K.

after a month still most joints feel bruised. I guess will take one more month to recover. doctor advised paracetamol, no aspirin, no combiflam and bed rest and avoid mosquitoes and take b complex.

By anon71858 — On Mar 20, 2010

what is the pathophysiology of dengue fever?

By anon68683 — On Mar 03, 2010

If Dengue is passed by mosquitoes getting infected by biting an infected person, how did dengue start?

By anon44968 — On Sep 12, 2009

The Dengue is a hemorrhagic fever? how come? When did it start?

By anon43738 — On Sep 01, 2009

how about the pathophysiology of dengue hemorrhagic fever? can you show me please in diagram or in paragraph form.

By anon43371 — On Aug 28, 2009

how about the diagram presentation of the pathophysiology of the hemorrhagic dengue fever, so that it can provide a more understandable presentation to the people.

By viola — On Aug 15, 2009

what may happen to the baby if the patient who has dengue is pregnant and in the second trimester?

By anon39337 — On Jul 31, 2009

how does thromboctyopenia occur in dengue fever?

By anon24818 — On Jan 18, 2009

I would like to ask about the history of dengue fever? I would like to know when did it start?

By peachfever — On Dec 07, 2008

I would like to know what is the best cure for Dengue. My nephew is in the hospital in the Philippines and has vomited blood an his nose this morning Sunday 7th. Dec at lunch time his nose was bleeding. His platelet is 49 blood count and they couldn't find a matching B type blood for his transfusion. Please can you help!

By marylooh — On Aug 26, 2008

how come people with dengue fever have myalgia (muscle pain) and joint pain?

By anon15079 — On Jun 30, 2008

what about the pathophysiology of Dengue hemorrhagic fever?

By anon2609 — On Jul 18, 2007

what about the pathophysiology of this disease? it may be in a diagram or paragraph form....

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