What is chikungunya fever? Should I be worried about traveling with my family?

Answers from James M. Steckelberg, M.D.

Chikungunya (chik-un-GUN-yuh) is a virus transmitted by mosquitoes that causes the sudden onset of fever and severe joint pain. Other signs and symptoms may include fatigue, muscle pain, nausea, headache and rash. Signs and symptoms of chikungunya usually appear two to seven days after being bitten by an infected mosquito.

No vaccine exists to prevent chikungunya virus, and there's no effective antiviral treatment. However, the disease runs a limited course and is rarely fatal. Treatment is aimed at relieving symptoms with rest, fluids and medications — such as acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) and ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others) — to relieve joint pain and fever.

Where is it found?

Chikungunya virus is usually thought of as a tropical disease because, until recently, it was found only in Africa, Asia and India. But an outbreak was reported in Italy in 2007. And in 2013, chikungunya was reported on islands in the Caribbean.

At this time, there are no reports of the virus being acquired in the United States. However, it's quite possible that the virus will make its way to the United States because it's spread by a species of mosquito found throughout much of the Americas, including parts of the United States.

How concerned should I be?

Most people recover fully with symptoms resolving in seven to 10 days. For some people, joint pain may continue for weeks or, rarely, months. Death from chikungunya is rare, but the virus sometimes causes severe complications, mostly in older adults. People who have been infected once are likely to be protected from future infections.

If you're traveling to an area with known outbreaks of chikungunya virus, take precautions. Use insect repellent containing DEET or picaridin, wear long sleeves and pants, and stay indoors or in screened-in places when possible.

If you're an older adult or have a condition such as high blood pressure, diabetes or heart disease, you're at increased risk of severe disease. Consider avoiding travel to areas with ongoing chikungunya outbreaks.

When should I see a doctor?

See your doctor if you think you or a family member may have chikungunya, especially if you have recently traveled to an area where there's an ongoing outbreak. Your doctor may order blood tests to look for chikungunya or similar diseases. If you are sick with chikungunya, avoiding new mosquito bites will help prevent the virus from spreading.

Jul. 31, 2014 See more Expert Answers