The time I got dengue fever…

What is Dengue Fever? Nikki Canning explains

Regular readers of TheTwoScoops will know that it’s a travel blog, and Sarah and I love sharing our favourite destinations and travel tips. But today, I’m going to go a little off-topic and talk about Dengue Fever.

I unfortunately contracted dengue fever and there’s been a lot of questions like ‘what is dengue fever?’, ‘how did you get it?’ and ‘what happened when you got it’.  So I’ve answered some of them below. Hopefully it can put some minds at ease and also help you protect yourself from getting dengue fever on your next trip!

What happened?

It all started on my Indochina Discovery trip – a month-long circuit around Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Northern Thailand. And when Chloe (my best friend and travel buddy on this trip) and I landed in Bangkok, I can remember specifically saying to her in the back of a taxi ‘our chances of getting dengue fever are so slim, I really don’t think we need to worry about it too much if we’re wearing mosquito repellent’. And of course, karma hit me hard in the form of a mozzy bite delivering dengue into my system. Ironic hey?

What were the signs and symptoms?

When I returned from my trip, I had a normal week at work and had no symptoms at all. It started on a Saturday night, I was out for dinner with my housemates, when I started to get a fever. I was freezing in the restaurant while everyone else was in sleeveless tops. I woke up the next morning with a pretty bad headache and lots of body and joint pain (which I blamed on a rather delicious Espresso Martini and an overzealous attempt at doing a Kayla Itsines workout the day before). But after breakfast the symptoms got worse, and I had decided to head to bed as painkillers weren’t making a dent in pain.

I had to call in sick the next day, and spent another morning taking painkillers and waiting for the headache to pass. My body still hurt, there was a huge pressure behind my eyes and I couldn’t regulate my temperature at all. I decided to called the NHS non-emergency helpline, and from there they directed me to head straight to my doctor. My GP then referred me to St Thomas’s A&E and from there, the tests started.

What the doctors said:

I told the doctors straight away that I had been travelling, and their first concern was that I has contracted malaria. I was on Malarone tablets and was pretty good at taking them every day (thanks to Chloe for being a great reminder) so I was pretty sure I couldn’t have it. The doctors took blood samples and sent me home with (stronger!) painkillers.

Two days later, I turned the colour of a cooked lobster. My whole body looked like it has been sunburnt (thankfully it didn’t hurt like sunburn!) and when I touched my skin, my fingers would leave a white imprint that stayed for a couple of seconds longer than normal. The nausea also hit around this time and my body ached like I had been hit by a bus. My joints felt like they were crumbling beneath the skin and even taking painkillers out of the pack was a real struggle. So I went back to A&E under doctor’s orders.

Finally a diagnosis:

Thankfully, the doctor I saw in St. Thomas’s on this second visit was an absolute star. Dr Michael McLaughlin if you’re reading this, you are my tropical disease hero! He recognised the symptoms as dengue and referred me to the Infectious Disease Clinic at St. Thomas’s. And along with the help of two consultants, two further rounds of blood tests, within 48 hours everyone was pretty confident I had dengue fever. That was however, almost a week from the first symptoms showing.

So how did I get it?

Dengue is a viral infection that is carried and transmitted by mosquitoes and is (surprise, surprise) quite common in SE Asia. The World Health Organization estimate that there were 390 million infections each year. But it’s not contagious – only mosquitoes can spread it.

While I was travelling, I was actually quite good at applying bug spray and staying covered up at dusk when mosquitos would be out. But, one afternoon in Chang Mai, I popped out to FaceTime my family from a cafe’s garden, and I got some pretty nasty bites from sitting under a tree. There’s no guarantee that I caught it that day, but the symptoms usually show 4-10 days after being bitten, so my dates added up to my time in Chang Mai.

How was recovery?

Unfortunately, being a viral infection, you can only take painkillers and wait for the virus to run its course. Thankfully I had lots of friends and family around to look after me and make sure I kept eating and taking medication throughout. I’m so grateful that it hit when I returned from my trip, because really bed rest is the only cure.

It’s been two weeks since I first showed symptoms and I’m thankfully feeling much better – weak and no way ready to tackle another Kayla workout – but getting back to my normal self.

What should I do if I think I have dengue:

Go to a doctor immediately. Even if you’re convinced you have dengue, there are other tropical disease and illnesses that have similar symptoms and the only way to test for dengue is through blood cultures that could take a week to show results.

While my symptoms were almost like a dose of bad flu, dengue can get a whole lot worse – Severe dengue (also known as Dengue Haemorrhagic Fever) can show itself with persistent vomiting, bleeding from anywhere and very bad abdominal pain. You need immediate care if you have any of these symptoms. Please, please don’t suffer in silence, any doctor (anywhere in the world) is better than no doctor in these circumstances.

How can I protect myself from dengue?

Just how you would protect yourself from any mosquito bites. I know next time I head abroad to anywhere that has dengue I need to be extra careful – I have an increased risk of having Haemorrhagic Fever as I’ve had dengue fever before. Here’s how to protect yourself:

  1. Wear a high percentage DEET mosquito repellent (I’ll be upping mine from 50% to 100%!)
  2. Wear long trousers and sleeve at dawn and dusk
  3. Sleep in a mosquito net, no matter how plush the hotel!
  4. Sleep with air con on cool where possible
  5. Try to stay out of dense woodland areas or near water

I think that is everything, but please do feel free to ask question in the comments section below or tweet me! I really hope that dengue doesn’t ruin anyone’s travels and please look after yourself if you are feeling unwell!

4 thoughts on “The time I got dengue fever…”

  • Hey! We’re Three girls currently travelling in Se-Asia! We’re starting our indochina discovery trip february 11th, and we’re wondering when you did use the malaria propfylaxis??

    • Hi Marte! Aww you’re going to have such a wonderful trip – one of the best things I ever did! Are you feeling all set and ready for it? For malaria, I took malarone and I took it for the whole trip. We’d got some conflicting info on what locations we would and wouldnt need to take it (like in Vietnam for eg. we were told only if we were going to Sa Pa, which we weren’t, but then another doc said yes for all of northern vietnam and laos). Also for malarone, you still have to take it for 7 days after leaving the malaria area, so the overlap of when we did and didnt need it was relatively small. Essentially, it was easier for us to remember and keep track of when we should be taking it if we just took it for the month. Obviously, that is more expensive as it’s more tablets but it’s what worked for us at the time! Hope that helps! If you have any other questions just ask! 🙂 Nikki x

  • I’ve been living in Hanoi, Vietnam for almost 10 months! When I first got here, I was over-vigilant about using bug spray and protecting myself against dengue but now that I’m comfortable here, I’ve honestly completely forgotten! Thank you for this amazing insider’s scoop (although I’m sorry you had to get dengue to be able to share!). I’m going to be more careful from here on out!


    • Hi Sarah! What an amazing, bustling and vibrant city to call home for a while! hope you’re having an absolute blast out there! Ah I was verrrry lucky I was home before I started seeing symptoms and it didn’t put a dampener on the trip! Do be careful, maybe check out this site from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention to see how many cases there’s been in Hanoi to judge the risk where you are: I found it really handy when I returned to Thailand AFTER dengue! But sounds like those nasty mozzies just don’t like your blood type! 🙂 Lash on some DEET next time your heading out for me! Nikki

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