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What Is Dengue Fever?

Dengue fever is a disease caused by a virus carried by mosquitoes. A person can get dengue (DEN-gey) fever through a mosquito bite, but it does not spread from person to person.

Dengue fever can cause fever, headaches, rashes, and pain throughout the body. Although it can be very painful, it's usually not fatal. Most people who get it start feeling better after several days and recover fully in a couple of weeks.

Wearing insect repellent, covering sleep areas with netting, and avoiding the outdoors at dusk and dawn (when mosquitoes are most active) can help lower the chances of infection.

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Dengue Fever?

Dengue fever used to be called "breakbone fever" because of the severe bone and muscle pain it sometimes causes. While the fever does not break any bones, it can sometimes feel like it does.

A person with dengue fever may notice:

  • a high fever
  • pain behind the eyes 
  • pain in the joints, muscles, and/or bones
  • a severe headache
  • a rash over most of the body
  • easy bruising

Some people can get a more serious form of the infection called dengue hemorrhagic fever. They'll have the regular symptoms of dengue fever for a few days. After the fever goes down, they also might have these problems:

  • nausea and vomiting
  • severe belly pain
  • trouble breathing
  • bleeding from the nose or gums
  • vomiting blood, or blood in their stool (poop)

If dengue hemorrhagic (hem-eh-RA-jik) fever is not treated right away, a person can have severe internal bleeding and a drop in blood pressure, and could even die. People with dengue hemorrhagic fever need medical care right away.

What Causes Dengue Fever?

Dengue fever spreads through mosquito bites. When a mosquito bites a person who has dengue fever, the mosquito becomes infected with dengue. The mosquito can then spread dengue fever to other people by biting them.

Dengue fever is not contagious, so it can't spread directly from person to person.

How Long Does Dengue Fever Last?

Symptoms of dengue fever can start up to 2 weeks after someone gets infected. Some people infected with the virus won't have any symptoms. Others will have symptoms for a few days to 2 weeks before getting better.

How Is Dengue Fever Diagnosed?

If you think someone in your family might have dengue fever, call a doctor right away

To make a diagnosis, the doctor will do an exam, take a medical and travel history, ask about the symptoms, and send a blood sample for testing.

How Is Dengue Fever Treated?

No specific treatment is available for dengue fever. Mild cases are managed with lots of liquids to prevent dehydration and getting plenty of rest. Pain relievers with acetaminophen can help with headaches and pain. Pain relievers with aspirin or ibuprofen should be avoided, as they can make bleeding more likely.

Dengue fever usually goes away without causing lasting problems. If someone has severe symptoms, or if symptoms get worse in the first day or two after the fever goes away, get medical care right away. Severe symptoms could be due to dengue hemorrhagic fever, which is a medical emergency.

To treat severe dengue fever at a hospital, doctors will give intravenous (IV) fluids and electrolytes (salts) to replace those lost through vomiting or diarrhea. When started early, this is usually enough to effectively treat the disease. If needed, doctors might do a blood transfusion.

Efforts should be made to keep anyone with a dengue infection from being bitten by mosquitoes. This will help prevent the illness from spreading to others.

Can Dengue Fever Be Prevented?

A dengue vaccine is recommended for kids and teens 9–16 years old who have had dengue before and live in areas where it is common. Visit the CDC's site for more information.

Because not everyone is a candidate to get the vaccine, preventing mosquito bites is still very important. Be sure to:

  • Use screens on doors and windows, and promptly fix any that are damaged. Keep unscreened doors and windows shut.
  • Have kids wear long-sleeved shirts, long pants, shoes, and socks when they go outside, and use mosquito netting over their beds at night.
  • Use insect repellent as directed on kids. Choose one with DEET, picaridin, or oil of lemon eucalyptus.
  • Limit the amount of time kids spend outside during the day in areas where dengue is reported, especially in the hours around dawn and dusk, when mosquitoes are most active.

Also, don't give mosquitoes places to breed. They lay their eggs in water, so get rid of standing water in things like containers and discarded tires, and be sure to change the water in birdbaths, dog bowls, and flower vases at least once a week.

Medically reviewed by: Linette Sande Lopez, MD
Date reviewed: July 2024