Getting a fever is pretty much everyone’s worst nightmare in 2020. Even though I had already gone through two negative covid tests, I panicked as soon as I felt that first chill inside me. I was moving to a new country with some of the lowest infection rates in the world, so the last thing I wanted to do was bring it with me.
While it started with a fever, I was in so much pain over the next few days I knew it had to be something else. Just five days into my new life in Barbados, and I get a diagnosis of dengue fever.
Big disclaimer: This blog post should NOT be substituted for medical advice. I am just sharing my experience of getting diagnosed with dengue. If you are sick, please seek professional medical advice.
What is Dengue?
Dengue is a mosquito-borne illness. The virus is spread to people through the bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito. 1 in 4 people infected become sick, with symptoms ranging from mild to severe and in some extreme cases, life-threatening.
My Experience with Dengue Fever
I arrived in Barbados at the beginning of November and had to quarantine for a couple of nights in a hotel. Coming from the beginning of winter in Canada, the first thing I wanted to do was sit outside and enjoy the warm tropical breeze.
I stepped out onto the deck and was immediately bit by mosquitos (they love me). I’m fairly certain I contracted it on my first night, so talk about bad luck.
Finally out of quarantine and ready to enjoy Barbados, I sadly only had about two days of freedom before I started to notice symptoms.
I didn’t associate this with dengue at the time, but one of the first warning signs was sharp jabs of pain in the back of my head the day before my fever started.
The next day I was out with friends at the beach and was really feeling the heat. I felt tired but chalked it up to heat exhaustion. I was still adjusting to my new tropical climate.
Later that afternoon we went to a bikini store, and as I was trying a swimsuit on, I noticed a rash on my stomach. My friends figured it was a heat rash and advised me to go home and sit in the AC.
I got home, turned on the AC, and a few minutes later was colder than I had been feeling in Canada before I left. I put on all the warm clothes I had on and got under multiple blankets. The chills wouldn’t stop.
I was panicked. Was it COVID?
I figured I would stay home and wait to see how my symptoms played out. I expected to develop others like loss of smell or respiratory, but they never came. Although COVID and Dengue do share similar symptoms, I realized over the next few days that it was much more likely dengue.
My main symptoms were high fever, a horrible headache that wouldn’t go away, and the worst nausea I’ve ever experienced. I had a complete loss of appetite for over a week and found it difficult even to drink water. My rash also spread to most of my body and stayed on my feet for days even after I felt better.
I was too sick to leave the house, so I called an urgent care doctor to come to my house. She took blood work, gave me fluids, and called me later the day to let me know it was dengue.
I was happy to have a diagnosis, but that didn’t make my recovery any faster. Unfortunately, there’s no treatment for mild dengue, so all you can do is try to manage the symptoms and wait for it to run its course.
How long does dengue fever last?
According to the CDC, symptoms of dengue last 2-7. However based on my experience and talking to others, I think it’s common for symptoms to last longer than that.
In my case, I was sick to the point that I couldn’t get out of bed for one week. I was in a fevery haze the whole time. After about a week my fever finally went down and I had enough energy to leave the house, but still wasn’t feeling great. I had no appetite, felt nauseous, and even had blurred vision.
By day nine, I was well enough to go out and enjoy myself, but I had the most intense brain fog of my life – especially when it came to writing. Tasks that usually take me a couple of hours were taking days. I was also having a lot of trouble with my vision, which dengue can effect. It was another week before the fog lifted, which I was beyond grateful for.
Dengue and Barbados
At this point, you may be wondering if it’s safe to visit Barbados because of dengue. As I mentioned above, dengue is present in over 100 countries. It’s in most Caribbean islands. That said, dengue does seem to be a problem this year (2020) more so than usual.
I say this because it was mentioned to me by my doctor and several other locals here. More to that, I’ve heard many friend of a friend story of others who got dengue here recently. At the same time, there are plenty of people I know who have been living here for months and have not gotten it.
I would not let dengue affect your decision to come to Barbados. While your chances of getting it and getting sick are low, it is important to be aware that it is here.
What to do if you think you have Dengue Fever
Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do for mild dengue in terms of treatment. However, it’s important to get diagnosed and monitor your symptoms as there is a more severe form of the disease called severe dengue that can result in shock, internal bleeding, and even death. Symptoms of dengue can become severe within a few hours and severe dengue is a medical emergency which you need to seek out medical help for. There are several warning signs you can read about here.
But for milder cases that don’t require hospitalization, there’s not a lot you can do other than treat the symptoms with over the counter medication and keep up with your fluids. If you go to the doctor or hospital, they can help you with fluids by giving them to you over an IV drip.
As for medication, do not take ibuprofen (Advil), as this can cause internal bleeding. For pain and headaches, you can take acetaminophen (Tylenol). I was also taking Gravol for nausea and an anti-histamine for the rash (although it didn’t help).
Although there’s no cure for dengue, it’s important to seek medical help if you think you may have it. I waited days before seeing a doctor and wish I had sooner, if anything for the peace of mind. Googling symptoms all day isn’t particularly helpful for stress.
The other reason to see a doctor is that dengue affects your platelets, and if they get too low, this can cause internal bleeding. It also affects your liver. When the doctor tests you for dengue, they will also do tests for all of this and make an assessment as to whether you need to be monitored at a hospital or are okay to recover on your own.
Several people have told me that Papaya leaf extract can help you recover from dengue because it helps with your platelet count. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any in Barbados, but I’ve heard stories from many people saying they felt much better after taking it.
How to Prevent Dengue
Dengue is a mosquito-borne illness, so the only way to be sure you don’t get it is not to get bitten. Mosquitos love water, so they are most likely to be out after a heavy rainfall or by stagnant water pools. Avoid places with stagnant water as well as being out at dusk when they are most active. If you are around mosquitos, wear insect repellant and or long sleeves.
There are four different types of dengue. Even though you build up an immunity to the type you were infected with, it’s still possible to become infected four times in your life if you have terrible luck. And each time, it gets worse. If you have had dengue in the past, you are more likely to develop severe dengue.
Is there a dengue fever vaccine?
There is a dengue vaccine, but it’s only recommended for use in those who have already had the disease. It’s only available in some countries, and unfortunately, Canada is not one of them. The FDA recently approved it in the United States. I really hope that I can get it somewhere on my travels because I’m terrified of getting dengue a second time due to the risk of severe dengue.
The Importance of Travel Insurance
This is yet another example of my misadventures that show why getting travel insurance is so important. Barbados isn’t a particularly cheap country, including medical care. Just for my tests and fluids, I paid over $1000 CAD. Thankfully, my insurance reimbursed me that back minus the deductible.
I used SafetyWing, which is an insurance designed for digital nomads. It’s a subscription-based service and very affordable (40$ USD a month). I paid for my costs upfront and then submitted a claim online, which was relatively easy; just make sure to keep all the receipts.
It took about a week to get the money back, which went straight into my bank account. Overall it was a fairly painless experience claiming with them for the first time, which is great to know. SafetyWing also covers COVID now!
The irony of moving to a place to escape a terrible disease and get another is not lost on me, but what else could I expect from 2020? It was a terrible way to start my life in Barbados, but I’ve been making up for lost time since and am loving it here.
There will be loads of Barbados content coming your way soon, and in the meantime, you can keep up with my daily adventures on Instagram.