Dengue fever (Breakbone fever)

Most travellers are well aware of the risks of malaria. Dengue fever; another mosquito-borne illness is less well known, but one that you should know about. In most people it is a feverish illness with no serious consequences, but a minority of infections are complicated by the development of dengue haemorrhagic fever which can be life threatening.

Most dengue infections occur in the Indian subcontinent, Central and South America and the incidence is rising dramatically in Africa. A few cases have been reported in the Middle East.

Travellers are most at risk in the rural areas of malaria zones, but dengue fever also poses a real risk in the urban environment as the mosquito has become well adapted to city life.

Typical symptoms

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Muscle and joint pain
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Rash
The illness is referred to as ‘breakbone fever’ because the symptoms of muscle and joint pain can be particularly prominent. Most infections, particularly those in children are very mild and may go undetected. Severity tends to increase with age and with repeated infections. Symptoms normally last about 5-7 days.

  • Rest
  • Fluids
  • Painkillers to help with the pain and fever. Paracetamol is better than aspirin as it does not interfere with blood clotting; a consideration in case dengue haemorrhagic fever develops.
If you develop symptoms and suspect dengue fever, it would be wise to consult a doctor so that the signs of the haemorrhagic form can be watched for. If you are far from medical advice look out for bruising, bleeding from the gums, coughing up blood, passing blood in the urine. Then it would be vital to seek medical help.

How to avoid infection
Unfortunately there is no vaccine or medicine that prevents infection. The only effective way of avoiding infection is to avoid being bitten by the infected mosquitoes.

The dengue fever-carrying mosquito is a daytime-biting mosquito, unlike the malaria-carrying one. It is most likely to bite during the early morning or the late afternoon, so you should cover up and use mosquito repellants during the day as well as at night.

The mosquitoes breed in stagnant water, so make sure your living area is cleared of any containers that may collect water, eg buckets, flowerpots, old tyres.

Further information

This article published on
25 November 2005

Next review date 11/1/2013


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