Zika, Chikungunya, and Dengue: What You Need to Know

Lene Andersen | Aug 1, 2016

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What is “mosquito arthritis”?

In the past few years, mosquito-borne viruses that have been linked to joint pain have become more prevalent. Chikungunya was the first to hit the headlines, then Zika. In the past, these sorts of illnesses primarily affected individuals in their areas of origin, e.g., Africa, Asia, South Asia. But international travel means that mosquito-borne infections can now spread around the world quite very quickly.

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Zika

The symptoms of the Zika virus – which has been common in Africa and Asia for decades, before the recent cases in the Western hemisphere – include fever, rash, joint pain, and conjunctivitis (red eyes). Symptoms may last up to a week. A diagnosis of Zika is based on symptoms, travel history, and a blood or urine test. Zika rarely requires hospital care.

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Zika and pregnancy

Zika can cause severe birth defects. Initially, the focus was on microcephaly, a smaller-than-normal head and underdeveloped brain. Recent research has found that other effects are possible. They include seizures, visual impairment, difficulty feeding, and serious joint problems.

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Chikungunya

Chikungunya first appeared in the Americas in 2013, when it was found in the Caribbean. A year later, people in the U.S. were found to have the illness. The acute phase of the illness lasts about 7-10 days, during which patients should reduce the risk of getting mosquito bites to prevent further transmission.

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Dengue

The symptoms of dengue fever include rash, fever, and muscle and intense joint pain. Dengue is endemic in Latin America, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific Islands, and only rarely appears in the United States. Severe dengue is a leading cause of death for children in certain countries in Asia and Latin America. Children under 12 can receive a dengue vaccine in countries where it is endemic.

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Mosquito-borne virus and joint pain

Dengue and chikungunya are often associated with excruciating joint pain, caused by the acute inflammatory response. (In fact, the pain can be so intense that dengue is sometimes called “break-bone fever.”) Although not chronic or a specific type of arthritis as such, these viruses share many symptoms with arthritis.

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Treating dengue, chikungunya and Zika

Treatment of these types of viruses is focused on symptomatic relief while waiting for them to subside naturally. Symptoms can be treated with rest, drinking liquids, and acetaminophen for pain. Moderate doses of steroids (10-15 mg) may also be used.

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Long-term joint pain

Joint pain can occasionally continue following infection. People who have had chikungunya may experience long-term pain in the joints. Similarly, joint and muscle pain may persist for several years after an initial case of dengue. “If symptoms persist, it may be a more lethal or potent infection and more extensive tests would be done," says Dr. Jonathan Krant, Section Chief of the Adirondack Health System and Medical Advisory at the Global Healthy Living Foundation.

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Long-term and serious complications

Dengue fever can develop into dengue hemorrhagic fever. Pay attention to symptoms and seek medical attention immediately if you start showing signs of bleeding. A link between the Zika virus and Guillain-Barré syndrome has also been reported. Guillain-Barré syndrome is a serious disorder caused by nerve inflammation.

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Transmission of mosquito-related arthritis

These viruses are primarily transmitted by a female of a particular mosquito (Aedes aegypti) which bites during the day. As this mosquito is also found in the southern U.S., there is significant risk for these diseases to spread in North America. Zika can be transmitted sexually. Dr. Krant explained that this has serious potential for a worldwide pandemic.

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How to protect yourself

The best way to protect against these illnesses is by preventing mosquito bites. When outside, wear clothing with long sleeves and legs. If you are going to be in an area where the viruses are endemic, buy clothing treated with permethrin, an insect repellent. This pesticide is approved by the United States Environmental Protection Agent. If you decide to treat your clothes yourself, exercise care and follow the directions.

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