How can you avoid getting dengue fever on the road? This question seems to immediately start bugging many who set foot on the ground of a tropical country, “tropical” in this context being loose enough to contain all the hot places where a “tiger mosquito” (the one with white stripes) can thrive.
I would even say the dengue is haunting the minds of all the travelers who travel to hot and humid regions – except for those who have contracted it already and know what to expect.
In this article I tried to assemble some killer tips (#sorrynotsorry for the awful pun) on how to (try to) avoid this painful disease, how to deal with dengue once you got it and some suggestions on how to get back on your feet after you´re supposedly “cured” (but still shaken).
Please note that I am not a doctor and have no medical background, education or experience. I merely learned from my own case and want to share my two cents with you today. However, I did consult a doctor friend to make sure the information provided is correct. You can follow Amrita on Instagram or read about her adventures from the pen of her husband at In Search of Lost Places.
My personal experience with dengue fever happens to be pretty disgusting too – I am going to be blunt about it, so if you don´t want to know all the nasty details, you should probably look for another source of information. If you´re up to hear all the yucky stuff, let´s dive right in!
How to avoid Dengue fever when you travel?
In the end of July in 2013, I was happily flying on a pink cloud, newly enamored of a Colombian guy with a messy beard that I met in a hostel in Bangkok. (Update: we are now married!) We were hitchhiking in Cambodia and he was teaching me how to ride a motorbike, when this sweet cliché story suddenly got interrupted by something nasty. I thought it was food poisoning as I was vomiting each time I tried to swallow a bit of water or fruit and don´t even let me start about the diarrhea. (You don´t want to hear it.) However, I also had other symptoms: severe pains, especially in my joints, behind the eyes and bones (even the moving air from the fan was hurting my skin), high fever that didn´t lower even if I showered in ice cold water and a particularly annoying fatigue. (Actually, not: falling asleep was the only way to escape the pain as painkillers didn´t work.)
What are the symptoms of dengue fever?
To sum it up, the symptoms of Dengue are:
- pain in joints and muscles
- pain in / behind eyes
- pain everywhere
- high fever
- skin rash
- getting bruises very easily (I had a blueish tone of skin in general)
- bleeding (e.g. from the gums, nose…)
However, not all people who contract dengue have all of these symptoms at once. For instance, I didn´t have skin rash, bruises or bleeding from my nose, so I thought I´m fine. Only I was not.
Read something happier: Waterfall chasing in Putumayo, Colombia
At first I figured my luck has finally deserted me and I was being struck by a food poisoning. The pain was bad, but I imagined the mysterious “tropical diseases” must hurt more. “It must be the infamous Delhi belly!” I thought. Stuck in the heat of Phnom Penh, I decided to wait for three days and then, if the pains would not go away, I would seek and consult a doctor. Wrong! If you start feeling that kind of pain, you should go to the doctor no matter what you think it is.
Can you avoid the Dengue fever?
Eeeeeeh…well, kind of. The only way to avoid dengue fever (or other similar tropical diseases transmitted by mosquito, such as the famous zika virus) is:
- don´t travel to the affected regions
So, you see, this option is not really a great advice. I know you are reading this because you want to travel to those beautiful places that happen to be dengue risky (*discarding n°1 with a floppy sound*).
I was told that you can get immune against dengue after contracting it. Yet, that´s not right a (Oh my, I feel like such an asshole telling you this:) Also, there are several varieties of the virus and repeated infection is a lot more dangerous than the first time. This is because the antibodies developed by the body during the first time infection strangely act in favor of the virus as a sort of a Trojan horse the second time – read more about it in this article.
How to lower the risk of contracting dengue?
Even though there is always the possibility of getting Dengue, it doesn´t mean you will contract it 100% sure.
Common sense tells you that in order to avoid Dengue, you have to:
- apply repellent regularly!
- use a mosquito net on your bed / hammock and windows
- long sleeves and long pants go a long way
- be smart: don´t book a room in a place right next to a source of sweet water
- apply more repellent! Like, a full bucket of it.
- drink a lot of water. (Oh, sorry, that has nothing to do with dengue but remember it´s hot! ;-))
If you follow these tips, you are less likely to get bitten by those bloody bastards and in turn getting sick. I have to admit when I went down with Dengue, I wasn´t applying repellent (it irritates my overly sensitive skin) and was wearing revealing clothes. Hanging around by a lake crowded with
those bitches mosquitoes did me in.
Read more: A detailed Bogotá guide (no mosquitoes there!)
Risky areas for dengue fever
Usually, the riskier areas are where people live because urban areas are the natural habitat of the responsible mosquito. “It is also interesting to note that the Aedes mosquito mainly bites during the day time, compared with the Anopheles mosquito (which causes malaria) which generally bites at dawn/dusk,” the doctor explains.
Sweet water sources (lakes, slow rivers, marshes and swamps…) are like a party place where the mosquitoes like to gather, drink blood and have casual sex so you should be extra cautious when hanging out by those.
Unsurprisingly, mosquitoes thrive in hot & humid weather where they can easily breed so if you are in a tropical country (like Colombia) but mainly in the mountains where the weather is not so hot, you should be fine. For example, I have never seen a mosquito in Bogotá when I lived there, although the epidemic was raging on the coast.
The “humid” part can be tricky too; I would think the rainy season is riskier, however, the peak of the zika epidemic (zika is very similar to dengue when it comes to how it presents itself and gets spread) in 2015 in Colombia was during the dry season.
How fast does the dengue virus develop into the illness in your body?
You contract the virus by getting bitten by a mosquito who has previously bitten someone with dengue virus in their blood, so that´s how it works. The incubation time (between when you get bitten until when you get the disease) can be up to 9 days sometimes, however, I got bitten one day (in S-21 museum in Phnom Penh in Cambodia, or at least that´s what I think) and I started feeling weak and weird almost immediately. Next day, I was sick af with high fever and severe pain already.
Read more: I said I loved to travel solo, but…
The symptoms can be mild, however, if you are suspicious it might be dengue, visit a doctor as soon as possible. The dengue is somewhat similar to the HIV virus in that it lowers your immune system by making it attack itself. For this reason, it makes you more vulnerable and can lead to many other complications in different organs of your body. Avoid becoming a feast for the bacteria and go to the hospital.
As for me, my dengue paired up with a particularly nasty kidney inflammation. If untreated, the consequences of it can last for a lifetime. I can not stress it more: visit a doctor!
How can I know if I have dengue fever?
If you are experiencing (some of) the symptoms I have described above, there is a chance you got dengue. When you visit the hospital, the doctor will do a blood test that can reveal the presence of the virus in the body.
Read more: Can you travel with atopic eczema?
However, the result can sometimes show as negative until five – six days in. That does not mean they will not treat you – the doctors are able to see the characteristic pattern of dengue in your blood screen because of the drastic drop in white cells and other signs. In absence of a blood test, the doctors are still able to recognize the symptoms of dengue, make a diagnosis based on that and treat you accordingly. (Remember, I am not an expert, but this is what Dr. Ivan told me in the hospital.)
*Great*, I have it. How will they treat me?
There is no cure known to heal the dengue; your body will do the work.
In the meanwhile, they should lower your temperature and pain in the hospital. I got a Paracetamol IV (which was an amazing high, I felt like floating after the days of hell) and heavy antibiotics for my raging kidney inflammation. As far as I can remember, they also injected me some kind of antiseptic solution (Dr. Ivan called it like that) and re-hydrated me at the same time as I was not able to swallow water. General antiseptic is usually not part of the dengue treatment though.
As soon as the pain killers kicked in, I felt great. Well…as great as it gets when you feel like shit.
In case you are really, really not able to go to the doctor (which I don´t recommend), take paracetamol, drink lots of water and stay in bed for ten days at least. It might be enough if you have the simple case of dengue which can resolve by itself with good results usually. However, if you have a more complicated case and other organs are affected, you definitely should seek medical attention. In complicated dengue, other organ systems begin to fail and there is a high risk of death.
After four-five days, the symptoms should recede as your immune system fights the disease. Use your common sense and wait until you recover – be a good boy/girl/whatever-gender-you-identify-with and keep it slow.
When I was hospitalized, they kept me for three nights and then I stayed one more week in a nearby hotel (which was often frequented by prostitutes with their customers – that was a bit funny). I slept the whole time. After that week, I had a following medical check up with the doctor who treated me. They did another blood test and concluded that I was able to travel.
Still, I felt like a bag of kittens on the way to the river. It took me about a half a year to get over the general tiredness and two years to get my immunity system back on track. Most of people I know who got ill with dengue didn´t feel this bad though, so if you are the unlucky one who contracted it, it doesn´t mean that you will experience it the same way as I did. I hope that makes you feel a tiny bit better.
General tips for getting better after the dengue
- sleep a lot
- eat veggies and fruit
- eat a lot of proteins. This helps your body with rebuilding itself.
- take it slow. Be gentle with yourself – acknowledge your pain and treat yourself accordingly. If you continue with your travels, take your time – your body doesn´t need to rush at this moment! Your health is more important than seeing all the landmarks. Really. I know, I´ve been there. And I hitchhiked. And it hurt.
- continue applying repellent. You might accidentally spread the disease if you get bitten by more Aedes Aegypti mosquitoes!
- it is crucial to do you best trying to avoid getting dengue again – it is a lot riskier the second time and you can not build an immunity to it!
Read more: Seven days on the Lycian way (no talking about dengue over there)
Conclusion: how to deal with dengue on the road
I have not met anyone yet who had such a disastrous case of dengue as myself – chances are that if you get it, it won´t be as bad as I describe it! (I hope you don´t get it at all.) Most of my friends and my husband, who caught dengue in Latin America, had far less problems than me – “just” a week of pain and fever and that was it.
Not much can be done about dengue – just drink LOTS of water (it is easy to get dehydrated when you vomit and have diarrhea) and take painkillers, paracetamol is good as it also takes down the fever. Make sure to eat good food and proteins to supply your body with all it needs.
Along with the dengue virus, zika, yellow fever, chikungunya and other diseases also get spread by the Aedis Aegypti mosquito. While you can (and should) get a vaccine for yellow fever (if you are traveling to the affected regions – South America, west Africa), that is not the case with many other illnesses. I hope you won´t get any of it, but since there is always a chance, it is better to travel with an insurance.
The purpose of this article is not to scare you away from visiting tropical regions – I have friends who have spent years in Vietnam and Thailand and didn´t get sick. On the other hand, I believe it is better to be informed – I had no idea what was wrong when I got ill and if I would have gone to the hospital earlier, I could have experienced a lot less pain.
Don´t be like me – be smart and take good care of yourself.
Special thanks go to my husband who took great care of me when I was reduced to a sleeping, moaning and vomiting thing (plus showed me videos of cute animals, documentaries about Pink Floyd and scientific tid-bits on Youtube to distract me from the pain).
More special thanks also belong to Amrita who kindly revised this article and cleared my misconceptions about the dengue from the doctor´s point of view and experience. All the errors and confusions are solely my own fault. Don´t forget to follow her amazing Instagram account where she shares details about her life in tropical island of Daru!
Do you have more tips on how to deal with dengue? Did you experience a tropical fever? Share your comments below!
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