It was the worst I’d ever felt, and it wasn’t going away. Every day I was getting some new symptom, but I questioned, was just the stress of traveling solo in India? It wasn’t stress.
It was Dengue Fever.
It took me two weeks to know I had it, and by then I was almost in the clear. I could have been seriously worse because REST is the most important step to recovery- not trekking mountains. As a nurse, I was trying to self-diagnose and was failing miserably as well as talking myself into thinking it was just an allergy, or all in my head. I was Facebooking doctors I knew from home and we were all playing and losing a guessing game. The symptoms for dengue are unusual, but once you have had it you would never misdiagnose again. Although there are many vaccinations travelers need, there is none for dengue fever yet. In case you’ve come across this post from googling, fear not I’m going to help you and because this is such a serious topic I’m going to make if fun with gifs. It was supposed to be one gif, but tumblr led me down a rabbit hole, whoops.
Dengue Fever Symptoms
Symptom 1 // Fever.
I’m talking an insanely hot fever– insane as in; you’ll hallucinate a little. Insane as in you’ll be completely delirious. It’ll happen the day of or day after you get bit by a mosquito carrying the disease. For me, that was in Delhi at a metro stop. This is the first and most harsh of the Dengue fever symptoms. I was couchsurfing with a local Indian man and was lied to about sleeping on the floor next to him. I was a little too delirious to deal! I couldn’t sleep all night and kept saying, “I’m dying”. I thought he’d drugged me. As soon as the sun rose I snuck out and met up with a French girl I was planning to go to the mountains with. I told her I was feeling really sick and she took care of me at my bitchiest, but probably thought, “Oh great, she’s going to be a blast to travel with!”
Symptom 2 // Blasting Migraine.
I’d never had a migraine before and this was intense. I couldn’t see without feeling the pain from my eyes all way to the back of my head. I thought, ok this is a side effect from either a drug or I’ve drank bad water (as the nausea was coming on as well), leading me to symptom 3.
Symptom 3 // Nausea.
Chloe and I headed north after a serious argument with a scamming train ticket office (I was so sick and tired I could have slapped this man!). We finally got a bus to Shimla. It was a big ascent into the mountains and my migraine was intensifying, as well as my nausea. I thought “hmm, I’ve never been car sick before, but I guess I am now! Must be something you get with age.” The windy mountain roads had me convinced. So I bought and took Dramamine (my little medical travel kit was not well-stocked for this month of illness).
Symptom 4 // Tiny dotted rash on whole body, but especially hands and feet.
This is a telltale sign. Once combined with the other symptoms doctors in India can be fairly certain what the test results will show. The nurse in me was like, “I don’t need a doctor”, I decided the headache was from the altitude change, nausea was car-sickness, and NOW I’m even allergic to Dramamine! I was having bad luck (and in pretty serious denial).
You know the ones I mean. Worse than the fact I basically had to live in a bathroom, I was getting cramps so severe; they would bring me to tears. Unfortunately I still had an appetite or I probably could have saved myself some pain. This ended up going on for three weeks.
Symptom 6 // Bruising, red dots on back, legs, arms & bloody nose or stools
The petechia was when I started to worry. I was doing a lot of walking, hiking, and was on the move daily. It was about a week since the fever and I wasn’t feeling any better. I thought I saw bruises on my back and maybe more rash and asked Chloe, but we both weren’t sure what was going on.
We’d gone from Shimla, to Sarahan where we were stranded in November snow, to Manali, Kullu, and finally McLeod Ganj when I sought help at a local hospital. They diagnosed me with likely dengue. There were two western doctors there who said without a doubt, I had it. I decided not to take the dengue blood test and save money. What did it matter at that point anyway? They had already done a test showing my platelets were low. They said there was no cure and I had to wait it out and stop traveling or head back to Delhi for a platelet transfusion, and I was like, “umm, no to the first and no way to the second!”
This was the first I’d heard of Dengue Fever. I didn’t know what it was. No one wants to hear “NO CURE” or “TRANSFUSION”. I’ve given plenty of people blood transfusions when I worked as a nurse, always telling them it’s no big deal, but once on the receiving end it becomes pretty scary. I really felt lost, pretty scared, and really sick. Chloe and I decided to stay a full nine days in McLeod Ganj. We met a holistic doctor who said he could “diagnose just by looking at someone”. He looked at me and said, “You’re in perfect health, maybe a little tired from travel.” Ha, this was the day before I found out I had dengue and he was most likely a sham. When we traveled by bus to Agra, and I felt so sick still that when we got off the bus I cried and cried… At this point it was the stomach cramps that were unbearable. I felt like something very serious was happening. Chloe and I went our separate ways here as she was headed to Nepal. I resisted the urge to curl up on the side of the street.
About 2 days later when I finally got off an overnight train in Varanasi on my own, I was beat. I took a bicycle rickshaw to the hospital and told the guy I’m not feeling well. He seemed certain I looked like I was dying and raced to the hospital, insisting on walking me inside. They finally confirmed I had dengue and gave me a stern lecture for staying on the move after being told not to.
Basically, in the time Dengue was at it’s strongest; my immune system had gotten too low to be out doing what I was. I had bacteria and infections galore and I was told by 3 western doctors and the head Indian one I needed to stay at least three days in hospital for treatment. They wanted to start me on IV antibiotics immediately.
I really felt like trying oral antibiotics would be best before resorting to IV ones. I took fluids because I was dehydrated and had lost 15 pounds in that time. This is when I finally called my parents for help, from the MD’s office phone. I told them I felt seriously fucked up and wasn’t sure what to do. They thought I should stay at the hospital, but as the MD gave me about 2 minutes to decide, I left. I took 6 different medications that finally helped me. The MD wrote them for me, saying under his breathe, “You’ll be back, sicker than you are now”. But luckily, he was wrong. I survived!
“I’m a survivor (what!) keep on survivin’!” credit: tumblr
In the end, after IV’s and multiple doctor visits, cab rides to hospitals, tests, and medications I still didn’t spent enough to meet the travel medical insurance deductible I had with World Nomads. India has extremely affordable care.
FYI, I do recommend World Nomads Travel Insurance while traveling in case something worse happens (A friend spent 1,000 USD in India on a kidney infection).
IF YOU LEARN ANYTHING FROM ME, LEARN THIS: You cannot just take antibiotics broad-spectrum in India. The bacteria are too strong and some are too rare especially being exposed to them for the first time. Each chemist and MD will try you on different ones but you MUST, seriously MUST have a stool sample done to find out exactly what you have in regards to not only Dengue, but any other stomach problems/UTI, or anything really. That’s why I won’t share what I took because it wasn’t to cure the Dengue; it was for what bacteria I’d picked up along the way. Dengue is a virus with no cure. Don’t be tricked into taking medication you don’t need. The right antibiotics are imperative to quick recover here. Insist on one. You really must anyways to make sure you don’t have blood in your stools.
Is Dengue fatal?
It can be, but in most cases is not. Some people who let their platelets drop too low (these are what help your blood to clot) can die from internal bleeding leading to changes in your heart rate and blood pressure, and eventually shock. I knew from having been a nurse that I didn’t NEED a transfusion, but if you’re told you need one- you really ought to take them up on it. Go to a larger hospital with more resources to get the transfusion, its fine if that means you have to travel a few hours. Most likely, you’ll have a miserable 1-3 weeks and then it’ll be over and done with. The more you rest and recover the quicker it’ll be over and the less other problems you’ll gain, like I did. Dengue Fever has a peak, which is different in everyone, but averages around 7 days. Once you’ve passed that you’re most likely in the clear for any bleeding issues and your platelet count will go back up. I’ve actually met quite a lot of people who have had dengue. Some got transfusions in Delhi (at the same time I was sick- they had an epidemic last year), some just laid in bed for a week and it passed. It is quite prevalent in some areas, but is not to be treated like a flue as many Indians do malaria; it’s much more serious.
What happens after you recover from Dengue?
There are four strains of Dengue. The MD’s didn’t conclusively tell me which strain I had. One type is seen way more often than the others and once you have it you cannot get that strain again. As for the other less frequent strains people are less likely to get, if you’ve have one type, and acquire another- your symptoms will be much more intense and doctors warned me that you have a much higher chance of that being fatal. Luckily, these strains are rarely seen.
In conclusion… REST!
If you find yourself with these symptoms: pay the money to get a true dengue test done, or if not available at least find out your RBC and platelet count. Follow your doctor’s advice. Rest and hydrate.
This is one of the only times I’d advise someone to STOP TRAVELING. If you continue to travel like I did while having dengue, you will be miserable for amuchlonger time and put yourself at risk for complications. If you’ve searched this because you have dengue, know that other people have been there and soon there will be a light at the end of the tunnel and you’ll feel better!
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Rachel Jones is an American who left a career in nursing to live on the beaches on Goa, India two years ago where she is now a Thai masseuse, candle-maker, and travel writer. Her award winning website gives advice on the other 28 countries she's been to but has become the go-to site on India travel, focusing on off beat places & “glamorous travel”. Hippie in Heels has been featured in ELLE magazine & was voted by Flipkey as one of the top 25 female bloggers to follow this year. You can follow her adventures on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Google plus.
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