Dengue Fever is a particularly nasty tropical disease caused by the bite of an infected mosquito, and like most travellers I assumed I would probably never get it. Until I did. Find out what happened when I caught dengue fever in India.
Heat, hassle, constant staring and culture shock, just another day in India. Until something that up until that point I assumed would never happen did. I caught dengue fever, and it knocked me on my arse so hard I didn’t know what had hit me.
Agra was one of the many highlights of my time in India, it was where I finally fulfilled my ambition to see the famous Taj Mahal, something I had been looking forward to since I stepped off the plane in Mumbai, well, long before that if truth be told.
But my trip to Agra didn’t quite go to plan. I fulfilled my ambition in the end, but it took me longer than I had initially planned for, and took me through a journey through hell and back to get there.
By the time I reached Agra I had been in India just long enough to start to acclimatise. I had gotten over the initial mental beating that is politely referred to as culture shock, I had started to get used to the heat, the crowds and the sensual overload, and I had even started to get my head round the intricacies of the infamous Indian head wobble and the logistical nightmare of buying a train ticket. I was starting to relax enough to look past the heat and the hassle and see the real beauty that India has to offer those who take the time to look deep enough.
Getting off the train at the Agra Cantonment station, I ran the usual gauntlet of touts without too much difficulty, but I wasn’t feeling at my best. I had a mild headache and I could have sworn I felt too hot, even in the heat of an Indian afternoon, but I dismissed it at first. I just assumed I was tired.
I hadn’t really slept well the night before so I didn’t think too much of it, and arriving in a new town meant that I just wanted to get a room and relax. I’d be fine after a bit of rest. A quick taxi to the outskirts of the Taj Ganj area – where traffic had been banned from entering in a half hearted attempt at gentrification and protection of the UNESCO world heritage site – allowed me to slowly walk through the streets and explore in my own time.
It was actually nice to wander the streets without the traffic for a change. Coming straight from Delhi where the traffic is relentless, the empty roads and occassional cow blocking my path was a pleasant surprise, allowing me to take in my surroundings as a passed restaurants, artisan shops and the occassional internet cafe. I wasn’t tempted to visit any of them just yet though, I needed to find a room first. Spoilt for choice with a smorgasbord of cheap budget hotels and hostels, all without fail displaying the ubiquitous ‘endorsed by Lonely Planet’ signs whether they actually had been that decade or not, it wasn’t difficult to find a room.
Because I wasn’t feeling at my best I chose a private room instead of a dorm. It wasn’t anything fancy, and it was dirt cheap, but it was nice and it was clean. It was perfect. Little did I know at the time it would be my self confined cell for the next few days.
After a little exploration I figured I needed a little rest and having a private bathroom was a luxury I suddenly couldn’t do without. By now my headache was starting to get seriously distracting and I was sweating far more than I should have been in the heat outside. Assuming it was a mixture of tiredness, dehydration and the heat I bought a couple of bottles of water and headed up to my private room for a nap.
When I Woke Up It Hit Me, And It Hit Me Hard.
My short nap was a reprieve that in hindsight was all too short. When I woke up I was feverish, dog tired, my entire body ached and I felt like hell. I could hardly move. I’m a big guy with a pretty robust immune system and to be honest nothing much ever really touches me which that means I’m not used to being sick and if I do catch a bug or something I shake it off pretty easily, but this felled me like a tree. This was no bug. This was something more. I fell back on the bed and stayed there for god knows how long.
More Than A Flu.
My initial thought from these flu like symptoms was more than a little alarming. This was malaria. It had to be. But how could I have Malaria? I hadn’t been in India that long! I was careful with my preventative measures, I was liberal with the DEET spray, I was even taking antimalarials damnit!
I tried to think rationally, most of India is low risk, and if my plans hadn’t have included parts of east India where the risk is higher I would not have recommended antimalarials at all. This couldn’t be Malaria. I was probably just sick with the flu.
I remember clearly falling back asleep, hoping it would pass.
When I awoke the next day it had gotten even worse. The flu like symptoms just kept getting more intense, I was running a fever and could barely think. I drank some water, feeling thankful that I had stopped to stock up on a few large bottles when I arrived, and then slept some more.
By that night it felt like every joint and bone in my body was breaking and my head felt like it had a dozen hobnail booted dwarves kicking hell out of it from the inside.
I just kept thinking malaria over and over, my increasingly fevered mind causing me to think the worst.
Then I got angry with myself. Stop panicking for crying out loud! I was a nurse, why couldn’t I diagnose it? Why couldn’t I even think straight? It took a little while, but the rational part of my brain fought through the fog and forced me to think. It was highly unlikely to be malaria. It certainly wasn’t the flu. That left one prime suspect. This was dengue. It had to be.
I had no blood sample, no lab to test my theory, but even in my fevered state by process of elimination I knew. The fever, headache and other symptoms could have been a number of other things, but the pain racking my entire body was pretty conclusive.
The telltale final sign was a small rash that developed on my arms and hands, maybe I had one on other areas too, but I specifically remember them there.
Along with the other symptoms, this was the definitive sign of dengue.
What Is Dengue?
Dengue fever is a viral infection transmitted by the bite of an infected Aedes aegypti or more rarely the Aedes albopictus mosquito. Any mosquito that bites during the daylight hours has a chance of carrying the disease. It is becoming increasingly problematic throughout the tropical and sub tropical world from South America to Asia, and has become a major international public health concern. Serious intermittent outbreaks occur frequently right across South and Central America, Africa and Asia.
There is no vaccine or cure for dengue fever and there is no treatment, but it is not fatal and will usually resolve itself. Dengue hemorrhagic fever (DHF) however is a more severe strain of dengue and can sometimes – rarely – be fatal if not recognised and medically managed by physicians and nurses quickly enough.
What Are The Symptoms Of Dengue?
Symptoms of dengue usually develop between 3 – 7 days after being bitten by an infected mosquito, but can take up to 14 days. Symptoms include:
- Severe headache, especially behind the eyes.
- Severe aching in bones and joints.
- Severe muscle pain.
- Skin rash.
- Abnormal bleeding, nosebleeds, bleeding gums and blood in stools or urine.
Not all of these symptoms will be present in every case to the same degree. Symptoms usually pass in a week on average, but can take up to two weeks, and it is not uncommon to feel tired or drained for a little while afterwards.
So I had caught Dengue Fever. Shit!
I had dengue. Damn it! Some damn mosquito had – despite all my preventative measures – still managed to get me. I spent the next half hour after realising what my symptoms were laying on my bed in agony and swearing every Celtic expletive and imaginative curse on every damn mosquito that I could think of.
But at least now I knew what it was, and that meant I knew what to do too. Sort of.
Up until this point I had only ever heard of dengue in the classroom, or as part of an anecdotal tale on the tropical disease unit and the emergency division where I had worked as a nurse. I’d never up until this point personally come across it in a patient, and certainly never been the victim of it.
That meant I had to rely on theory, and a memory that at this point was less than stellar.
Clinician, Heal Thyself! Yeah Right.
I tried to dredge up from the back of my mind all the information I could muster about dengue, which I admit at the time wasn’t much more than the basics. But it was enough to calm myself down and to get myself thinking rationally.
The problem with dengue fever is that there is no treatment. No cure. No magic pill you can take. You just have to fight through it. And fighting was one thing I was damn good at. Just knowing that vital piece of information was ridiculously reassuring to me at the time.
I don’t know why exactly but just knowing that it would be fine if I just battled through it helped.
It gave me something to fight.
I knew there was no point in seeking medical attention, as bad as they felt at the time I knew my symptoms were relatively mild and I had no other serious complications. There was no excessive blood or bleeding and the bathroom situation was – lets just say manageable. I know you don’t want too many details! I knew there was little any medical facility could do for me that I couldn’t do for myself and frankly I couldn’t be bothered leaving my room. The treatment of dengue was all about the management of the symptoms. Stay hydrated, stay rested, manage the pain, let it pass.
So that’s what I did. I took some paracetamol for the pain and waited it out, gaining a whole new understanding why dengue is nicknamed breakbone fever. I stayed as hydrated as possible and became extremely grateful to the guys who worked at the guesthouse I was staying in who – once they became aware of my situation – kept me supplied with large bottles of water and fruit and kept trying to pursuade me to get a doctor. To this day I am extremely thankful to them for looking out for me. And I rested. A lot.
For three whole days I confined myself to bed in a self imposed form of solitary confinement. I put all my travel plans on hold and just waited until I felt better.
The whole experience felt like some sort of horrible, feverish dream filled with pain and intermittent bouts of consciousness. Time lost any and all meaning. But eventually the pain eased. The headaches receded.
I did finally feel a lot better on the third day, still rough, but well enough to emerge from my room and get some fresh air. I still wasn’t up to full strength though and I decided to just hang back another couple of days and rest some more. I didn’t really have an itinerary as such because I was travelling indefinitely, so I could easily afford to put plans on hold, but this is one of the reasons I always recommend that long term travellers factor in rest time in their travels, so they can rest up when needed without missing out.
Another couple of days saw me fit and strong enough to start getting back to normal. I even did some light morning exercise which I hadn’t done since the dengue knocked on my backside. I felt a lot better. I was over it. I had contracted dengue but I had beaten it! I still wished I could have personified the disease so I could have had the physical satisfaction of punching it in the face, but I beat it!
Now that I felt better I could get on with my trip and do what I came to Agra to do. I spent the next day visiting the Taj Mahal, one of the most magnificent and memorable sites in India and something I had now waited the better part of the week to do! It was worth the wait!
How To Treat Dengue.
Remember, there is no vaccine or cure for dengue at the moment, so if you get it all you can do is try to relieve and manage your symptoms. For some people this is best done at home or in your hotel under supervision, for others it may mean a short stay in a hospital for IV fluids and pain relief. If you can manage it alone, then:
- Use paracetamol to relieve pain and reduce your temperature. Do not use any other painkiller – especially aspirin or ibuprofen as these can thin the blood even more and cause complications with bleeding.
- Important note: Paracetamol (a British standard analgesic medication) is known in the U.S.A as asacetaminophen, but there are also dozens of brand names such as Tylenol, Aceta, Dapacin or Panadol for example.
- Drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration.
- Antibiotics won’t help you, don’t take them.
- Eat fruit to replenish essential vitamins.
- Most importantly, stop travelling and rest! You may continue to feel tired for a little while even after the symptoms have stopped. This is normal, but if you are worried seek out further medical attention.
The best and in fact only way to reduce your chances of contracting dengue in the first place is by taking preventative measures to stop yourself from getting bitten by the mosquitoes that carry the disease.
I was lucky in the sense that I am a trained nurse, so when the worst happened I knew how to diagnose and treat myself without the need to find and get to the nearest medical facility – which is the first thing I would recommend for anyone not trained – and more importantly I had enough information to remain calm instead of panicking.
I hope this article gives you at least a little of the knowledge you need to prepare yourself and helps to increase awareness about this disease. Remember though, if you don’t have training or aren’t confident about what you have, then go and get advice from your nearest medical facility as soon as possible. Hopefully this little bit of knowledge helps you to stay calm and know how to react if it ever happens to you.
What about you? Have you ever suffered from dengue? Are you plagued with mosquitoes on your travels or do you have any particular mosquito prevention techniques?
Did you enjoy this article? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below or on my Facebook or Twitter pages and please feel free to share it with any or all of the social media buttons. If you want to get more great backpacking tips, advice and inspiration, please subscribe to updates via email in the box to your right.
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Oh dear!! Sounds awful!! You poor thing! Glad that it resolved and that you were able to fulfil your dream! Great post 🙂
Should probably say… “informative” post instead of great because it is not great that you got dengue fever…
Haha! Thank you! It was pretty bad at the time. Hopefully others will get some useful information out of my experience. Thank you for the comment. 🙂
Eurgh that sounds awful. Bloody mosquitoes. Thanks for all the tips, very informative
It was! Thanks for the comment. 🙂
Dengue really is awful! I suffered from it too last year. I didn’t get a very bad case of it myself, but I was still out cold for almost 2 weeks! Although, I will add that it is extremely important to seek medical attention even if you feel you are equipped to handle dengue. One essential fact is that your platelet count keeps falling when you have dengue. That’s what results in the weakness in the first place. And you need to monitor the count with blood tests at least once every two days to make sure it doesn’t fall too low. Dangerously low platelet counts can be fatal, no matter how rested and hydrated you are. So I would advise everyone to go to the doc as soon as possible!
There is a difference between dengue and the rarer dengue haemorrhagic fever and dengue shock syndrome, which various medical councils including the WHO have suggested reclassifying into two simple classes, dengue and severe dengue. For most people who would not know the difference medical advice is essential I agree, as I said in the article. It is awful though, I felt a lot better within a week, but I still got tired easily the week after too.
Good thing you had a private room to recover!! A dorm would have been misery with all the lights and noise. The migraine might have been the worst part. Great tips though too!
Thank you. 🙂 The headache was bad at first but then it was the joint pain that became the worst part for me! The private room was an absolute life saver. I don’t know how you managed getting through dengue without one!
I remember dengue. It’s not something I wish to revisit… Ever.
I agree with wisemonkey, informative and interesting post, in that you are like a patient case study 😉 Sorry you had to get it at all but it will be helpful for many others!
Thank you. It was a bad experience but hopefully people will find it useful. 🙂
I had a friend who had dengue before…it took her one week in hospital before she got well enough to be discharged and she wasn’t even at full recovery yet. My dad works to hunt down these mosquitos here…because we’ve had some pretty bad clusters with deaths from dengue fever so all I can say is…very fortunate you were able get through it…:)
It’s awful. I was lucky mine was only the milder strain. Thankfully the more lethal strains are relatively rare! I wish your dad luck!
Yeah but it has been going around here in Singapore routinely too. So you should watch out when you are next here too, wouldn’t want to get it again in Singapore of all places…:)
Don’t worry I’m always a stickler with my prevention, I just happened to get unlucky that time that’s all. Dengue is pandemic throughout most of South and South East Asia, and flare ups are happening all the time. That is why it always pays to be careful. I think a lot of travellers drop their guard in Singapore particularly because it has a low risk of malaria and is generally considered safe. Hopefully by spreading the word more people will protect themselves. 🙂
Oh dear, that really sounds like hell! Thanks for this educational post, it’s really more ‘convincing’ and informative then a wiki explaining the symptoms. I will carry this information with me on my next trips. Thanks 🙂
Thanks! It wasn’t nice but I’m glad you and others might be getting some important info from the experience. That was the plan! 🙂
Very informative post! We will certainly be sharing this. It is always helpful for our readers and others to hear about dengue infection and how it can be avoided from a first-person perspective. At Break Dengue, we are all too aware of the burden of dengue in India, and we are doing what we can to stop dengue in its tracks.
Thank you, I appreciate the shares. I totally agree, everyone always asks about malaria but dengue is relatively unknown and ignored in comparison. The more the word is spread the better!
That sounds nasty – glad you recovered OK. I sympathise, because when I went to Agra I was suffering from a worse than usual case of Delhi Belly, but that was nothing compared with what you had.
Thanks, I was just unlucky really. These things happen from time to time though, at least we can recover and carry on with our travels. 🙂
There’s something in that smile that says, “I Just Kicked Dengue’s Butt!” Maybe you should get a t-shirt. 🙂 Being sick on the road is awful, but it does leave you with a host of stories. I contracted cholera during a road trip through Central America in 1992, and hepatitis A in South America in 2013. No regrets.
Haha thanks Bob! I think there is more an ‘I’m exhausted and lost half my body weight’ statement in that smile, but I do like the T Shirt idea!
Cholera and Hep A are bad news though mate, glad you got through okay.
I totally agree on the no regrets thing too, anyone can get sick anytime, it isn’t an experience I’d like to repeat but I certainly wouldn’t change a thing even if I could. The bad experiences are as much part of the adventure as the good ones!
Thanks for the comment. 🙂
Very informative and educational post! I will keep all that in mind for sure when I go to India and not only. And Im sorry you got it!
Thanks Elena, hope it is of use to you. 🙂
How… character building!
I am so glad I have not been so unlucky to get this but I have heard the stories of people who have (yourself included!) and am really happy I have been lucky enough to not get this… UGH.
Thank you for sharing though – simple advice for how to treat it but someone might read this and then when it happens to them go, “Wait… I read about this once…”
That’s the aim Stacey, hopefully anyway! I don’t mind using myself as a case study if it makes a few people consider mosquito prevention. 🙂 Thanks for the comment.
Wow, that’s some heavy disease by the looks of it. Main reason why I won’t travel anywhere really tropical with our little girl yet. She’s 4 and I find her way to little to have the risk to catch something bad like this…
It is pretty unpleasant but the general risk of contracting it is pretty low if you take precautions against mosquito bites, I was just unlucky. I certainly wouldn’t let the risk stop you from travelling with children. Just take my advice (and incidentally the advice of the CDC and WHO too) on the bite prevention methods above.
I’m really worried about dengue, I always always always get bitten by mosquitos. If there’s one in a town, I’ll be the first to be bitten. This post is really useful thanks 😀
Thanks Laura, glad you found it useful. There really is no need to be overly worried about dengue provided you have the right information (the reason for this post) and take the right precautions (see above). It is all about minimizing the risk to you and knowing what to do. Yes there is a small chance you may get it, but there is a larger chance you won’t, especially if you guard yourself against bites. Be prepared, don’t be worried. 🙂
For once I feel your pain. Quite literally. I came back from Burma having traveled taking no malaria precautions. 1 day after we arrived home I began to lose my appetite and I felt more tired than normal but I put it down to 24 hours of travelling the days before. When i woke the next day i felt terrible and throughout the day my symptoms became increasingly worse to the point where I could not move, walk or breathe without being in some serious pain. I honestly thought I was going to die or Malaria and to make things worse I live in a country where neither I or my partner speak English.
To cut a long story straight I was left in a Czech hospital with no attention, water or pain relief for over 11 hours. I discharged myself which is highly dangerous if you have Dengue and suffered at home for over 2 months with unbearable muscle and bone pain. Guess its not called break bone fever for nothing! I am glad you are feeling better! I know how horrible it is and I only hope neither of us catch it again! But I did have the scare of my life so I will never travel without Malaria tablets again!
Thanks for the comment Shussey, sounds like a horrible experience! Just to be clear though antimalarials will not protect you from dengue. Malaria and dengue fever are two very different diseases, even though they are both transmitted by mosquito bites. There is no vaccine for dengue at all at the moment, and the only way to protect yourself is by preventative mosquito measures.
No no that I know….I meant I was so scared I had malaria that I will never travel without taking antimalarial! I know there is no vaccine for Dengue unfortunately and I covered up for the entire holiday and still managed to get it 😦
Ah, I misunderstood! I know what you mean though, I always recommend everyone take antimalarials for that exact reason, the risk just isn’t worth it. I guess we were both just unlucky! We got through it though! It’s all part of the experience, right? 🙂
Indeed its all part of the experience! Fingers crossed I never get it again 🙂
Wow. I’m so so sorry you had to go through that. Like you said, Dengue is very rarely fatal, but the first two people I knew who contracted it, died. So my family is terrified of the disease. Of course, we know many more who (relatively) sailed through it. Thanks for the tips. Hopefully I won’t get terrified next time someone I know had to go through it (I hope NEVER!!!).
And glad the Taj Mahal was still worth your while 🙂
Thank you Surya, it really was worth it! It is important to distinguish between dengue and the more severe strains of dengue that can be fatal without treatment. Having the right information really does help with fear of a disease too, so I hope I have helped in some way toward that. 🙂
You definitely have! Thanks a lot!!
Sounds like you had a tough time but here to tell the tail which is great. I’m there in 2 weeks so thank you so much for this information, i’m sure i’ll read this post a few times to try and make sure i’m covered or to know what to look for. What malarial tablets did you go for? As still deciding that one. Thank you.
Thanks Brad, I am! ;D I hope you find the info here useful for your trip. Personally I took Doxycycline as an antimalarial, but that doesn’t mean it will be right for you. Visit your travel clinic or GP as soon as possible. Make sure you look in my travel health section and the India destination guide for more specific information. 🙂
Whoa – what an intense illness for your travels! I was ill in Egypt but not to this extent! How great it was that you could ensure you took as much time as you needed to recover and didn`t feel pressure to rush and sight see!
Exactly Alli, that is why I always factor in ‘rest time’ in any of my trips so I can spend a few extra days on a beach, waste a day or so in transit, see a whole new place I hadn’t planned on before I arrived, just hole up and rest if I get sick or whatever else it may be without worrying about it too much. The benefits of travelling slowly. ;D
That should be your next blog post, if you haven’t done it already! (Benefits of Slow Travel)
Already written a little about it (search for travel slowly in the search bar), but I’m always open for suggestions on what to write about or what people want to read, so keep an eye out! ;D
Oh my goodness Mike, I’m so happy you’re ok now. dengue sounds terrible. Many of my friends in SEA have had it and said how important it is to keep yourself hydrated and get plenty of rest. Lucky it was the mild strain and you’re up travelling again!
Thank you Margherita, I appreciate that. It would have had to kill me to stop me travelling though! ;D
I am so glad you’re okay and you survived that ordeal! It is a good thing you are a trained nurse and you recognized the symptoms, I think many people would be unsure. Thanks to your post I now know all about it too, Thank you for that!
Thank guys, that’s the whole aim. If I can raise a little awareness then it’s all good!
Excellent post. We hear about these diseases but brush it off, thinking that it won’t affect us. But it always hits home when it’s someone you know. You covered it well, I’m prepared!
Thanks Frank, I agree, so many people just dismiss the risks thinking it won’t happen to them. Odds are it won’t, but there is still no harm in reducing the risks even more!
I really feel for you. I’ve been lucky with my travels so far and have never contracted anything serious. It just goes to show how important insurance is!
I totally agree, insurance is as essential as your plane ticket! I never actually used it this time as I didn’t need treatment, but it could have easily been necessary.
I feel your pain. I visited Bali in November 2014 and upon returning fell very ill and discovered I had contracted Dengue fever! I recovered in a few weeks but even to this day I feel like it flares up every now and then, especially if I get a cold or the flu, some of my symptoms remind me of Dengue fever. I just wonder if the symptoms of it can actually keep continuing to flare up. have you experienced this at all?
Sorry you went through that Marie. No, unless you are in a dengue risk area it seems you may just be getting regular flu viruses, the initial symptoms can be very similar but don’t worry.
I’m so sorry you had to go through that, but thanks for the serious and important information.
You are more than welcome, it’s an important subject that deserves attention. 🙂
Thank you for writing this, I’m sorry you went through that but reading it has been very informative and helpful. Thank you. 🙂 (I’m glad you got better btw!)
Thank you so much, me too! And I’m really glad you found it useful. 🙂
Omg I have no idea how you managed to stay rational like that, Id be freaking out! I’m actually a little worried now because I’m going in the summer and had no idea about any of this until I saw this post.
Don’t worry Kelly, honestly. The risk of you catching it is relatively low , especially if you take all the steps above to stop getting bitten in the first place. One of the best weapons you have for not panicking and being able to deal with situations is knowledge, and that is hopefully what you can get from reading this post. 🙂
Oh no that sounds like a horrible experience! Glad you got through it ok.
Thanks Lucy, it was horrible, but if other travellers are more aware of dengue and use more bite prevention measures as a result it is worth it!
Dengue is scary! Thanks for sharing your story on this it is really good to get some actual real life information.
You’re very welcome, and thanks for the comment.