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What is Dengue Hemorrhagic Fever?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 27 November 2016
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Dengue hemorrhagic fever is a complication of dengue fever, which is a dangerous virus spread through mosquito bites. People most at risk for this difficult condition have usually already had a case of dengue fever, or elevated risk exists for children, and for women, particularly of Caucasian descent. Most people who get dengue fever won’t progress to dengue hemorrhagic fever, but when they do, it is a condition requiring treatment. Without it, half of the people that get this illness die.

People who get dengue fever have been bitten by mosquitoes that are known to occupy certain parts of the world. Areas where people are exposed include Southeast Asia, South America, Northern Australia, Central America, and parts of Africa. Mosquitoes that pass these viruses are the Aedes aegypti.

Initial symptoms of dengue hemorrhagic fever are usually identical to those of dengue fever, so it may be hard to tell at first what type of illness a person has. Early dengue fever symptoms include very high fever — temperatures of 104 degrees F (40 degrees C) or slightly higher are not uncommon. People may have aches and pains in muscles and joints, nausea and/or vomiting, the lymph nodes are often swollen, and the victim may have headaches and fatigue.

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If the disease is indeed dengue hemorrhagic fever, things change within a few days of showing early symptoms. People become extremely restless, and have profuse perspiration. Petechiae or small red dots may appear on the body, indicating bleeding of the capillaries into the skin. People can also get large red patches that suggest more significant bleeding under the skin. What can occur next is shock, where major organs in the body can stop functioning properly. People may develop swelling in the brain, liver inflammation, and fluid in the lungs.

While some people pass through dengue hemorrhagic fever and don’t develop shock or are able to recover from it, many go through a crisis period that lasts about 24 hours, where it’s unclear whether recovery will occur. It is very important to get treatment first, when possible, as this can greatly improve survival chances. Unfortunately, treatment is not perfect.

One of the troubles with dengue fever of all types is that it is viral. Doctors can give supportive treatment and work on fighting damage to organs, but they can’t cure the virus directly. Treatment for dengue hemorrhagic fever might address internal bleeding with blood transfusions, it could help calm fever or inflammation, and it can treat things like dehydration or low oxygen levels. These supportive treatments usually help people pull through the illness.

For most people, the best treatment is prevention, which means using strong mosquito repellents in areas where this mosquito frequents. Those repellents with DEET are most recommended. It’s also advisable to avoid being outside at times of day when mosquitoes are most active. Given the added risk of this disease to children and white women, particular caution could be advised for these groups.

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