What is chikungunya fever? Should I be worried about traveling with my family?
Answer From Pritish K. Tosh, M.D.
Chikungunya (chik-un-GUN-yuh) fever is an illness caused by a virus spread by mosquitoes. The name means "bends you up" or "stooped walk" because the infection causes severe joint and muscle pain. Other symptoms include sudden high fever, headache, fatigue, rash, nausea and red eyes. Symptoms of chikungunya often appear within 2 to 7 days after a bite from an infected mosquito.
No vaccine exists yet. And no treatment for the infection is available. But chikungunya rarely causes serious problems or death. Many people get better within a couple of weeks. But others have joint and muscle pain that can last for months or years after they've been infected with the virus.
The goal of treatment for the infection is to relieve symptoms with rest, fluids and drugs, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol, others). Don't take aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others) or naproxen sodium (Aleve) until infections with symptoms similar to those of chikungunya fever have been ruled out.
For ongoing joint and muscle pain, drugs that relieve rheumatoid arthritis may help. Ask your health care provider for advice.
Where is it found?
Once found only in Africa and Asia, chikungunya has spread quickly since 2004. Now, more than one-third of the people in the world live in places with risk factors for infection. These places include the Americas, Africa, Asia, Europe, and islands in the Caribbean and the Indian and Pacific oceans.
How is it spread?
People get chikungunya when bitten by a mosquito infected with the virus. Chikungunya is not spread from person to person. But mosquitoes pick up the virus when biting an infected person. If you have the infection, avoid getting new mosquito bites to keep the virus from spreading to others. And avoid travel too.
How concerned should I be?
Many people get better with no other symptoms after 1 to 2 weeks. But others may have joint and muscle pain for months or even years. This is called chronic chikungunya arthritis. It affects at least 40% of those who become infected with the virus.
Death from chikungunya is rare. But the virus can cause severe problems in some people. People at higher risk include older adults, those with long-term conditions such as high blood pressure or diabetes, young children, and pregnant women who might spread the virus to their babies. Complications can include severe problems of the eyes, heart and nerves. People who have been infected once are likely to be protected from future infections.
How can I prevent the infection?
If you're traveling to an area with known outbreaks of chikungunya, take care to prevent getting the infection. Because chikungunya isn't spread from human to human but by mosquitoes, preventing bites is your best protection. Follow these tips to prevent mosquito bites:
- Use an insect repellent that has DEET or picaridin. Check that it's registered by the Environmental Protection Agency.
- Wear long sleeves and pants.
- Remove standing water when possible.
- Protect yourself indoors with screens, air conditioning and mosquito netting.
If you're pregnant, especially late in your pregnancy, don't travel anywhere with a chikungunya outbreak. The virus can be passed on to your baby and cause serious complications.
If you're an older adult or have a condition such as diabetes or heart disease, you have an increased risk of severe disease. If possible, don't travel to areas with ongoing chikungunya outbreaks.
When should I see a health care provider?
See your health care provider if you think you or a family member may have chikungunya. This is especially important if you have recently traveled to an area with an ongoing outbreak. Your provider may order blood tests to look for chikungunya or similar diseases. If you're sick with chikungunya, prevent new mosquito bites to keep the virus from spreading.
Pritish K. Tosh, M.D.
July 29, 2022
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See more Expert Answers
- Amaral JK, et al. Chronic chikungunya arthritis and rheumatoid arthritis: What they have in common. The American Journal of Medicine. 2020; doi:10.1016/j.amjmed.2019.10.005.
- Battisti, V, et al. Antivirals against the chikungunya virus. Viruses. 2021; doi:10.3390/v13071307.
- Chikungunya virus. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/chikungunya/. Accessed April 4, 2022.
- Chikungunya. World Health Organization. http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs327/en/#. Accessed April 4, 2022.
- AskMayoExpert. Chikungunya fever. Mayo Clinic; 2022.
- Wilson ME, et al. Chikungunya fever: Epidemiology, clinical manifestations, and diagnosis. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/search. Accessed April 4, 2022.