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Diseases & Conditions A - Z
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Yellow Fever

What Is Yellow Fever?

Yellow fever is a serious, potentially deadly flu-like disease spread by mosquitoes. It’s characterized by a high fever and jaundice. Jaundice is yellowing of the skin and eyes, which is why this disease is called yellow fever. This disease is most prevalent in certain parts of Africa and South America. It isn’t curable, but you can prevent it with the yellow fever vaccine.

Recognizing the Symptoms of Yellow Fever

Yellow fever develops quickly, with symptoms occurring three to six days after exposure. The initial symptoms of the infection are similar to those of the influenza virus. They include:

  • headaches
  • muscle aches
  • joint aches
  • chills
  • fever

Acute Phase

This phase usually lasts for three to four days. Common symptoms include:

  • headaches
  • muscle aches
  • joint aches
  • a fever
  • flushing
  • a loss of appetite
  • shivers
  • backaches

After the acute phase is over, symptoms will begin to go away. Many people recover from yellow fever at this stage, but some people will develop a more serious version of this condition.

Toxic Phase

The symptoms that you experienced in the acute phase may disappear for up to 24 hours. Then, those symptoms will return, along with new and more serious symptoms. These include:

  • decreased urination
  • abdominal pain
  • vomiting (sometimes with blood)
  • heart rhythm problems
  • seizures
  • delirium
  • bleeding from the nose, mouth, and eyes

This phase of the disease is often fatal, but only 15 percent of people with yellow fever enter this phase.

What Causes Yellow Fever?

The Flavivirus causes yellow fever, and it’s transmitted when an infected mosquito bites you. Mosquitoes become infected with the virus when they bite an infected human or monkey. The disease cannot be spread from one person to another.

Mosquitoes breed in tropical rainforests, humid, and semi-humid environments, as well as around bodies of still water. Increased contact between humans and infected mosquitoes, particularly in areas where people haven’t been vaccinated for yellow fever, can create small-scale epidemics.

Who Is at Risk for Yellow Fever?

Those who haven’t been vaccinated for yellow fever and who live in areas populated by infected mosquitoes are at risk. According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 200,000 people become infected each year. Most cases occur in 32 countries in Africa, including Rwanda and Sierra Leone, and in 13 countries in Latin America, including:

  • Bolivia
  • Brazil
  • Colombia
  • Ecuador
  • Peru

How Is Yellow Fever Diagnosed?

See your doctor right away if you’ve been traveling recently and you experience flu-like symptoms. Your doctor will ask you about the symptoms you’ve been experiencing and if you've traveled recently. If your doctor suspects that you have yellow fever, they’ll order a blood test.

Your blood sample will be analyzed for the presence of the virus or for the antibodies meant to fight the virus.

How Is Yellow Fever Treated?

There’s no cure for yellow fever. Treatment involves managing symptoms and assisting your immune system in fighting off the infection by:

  • getting enough fluids, possibly through your veins
  • getting oxygen
  • maintaining a healthy blood pressure
  • getting blood transfusions
  • having dialysis if you experience kidney failure
  • getting treatment for other infections that may develop

What Is the Outlook for People with Yellow Fever?

The WHO estimates that 50 percent of people who develop severe symptoms of this condition will die. Older adults and those with compromised immune systems are most at risk for serious complications.

How Is Yellow Fever Prevented?

Vaccination is the only way to prevent yellow fever. The vaccine for yellow fever is given as a single shot. It contains a live, weakened version of the virus that helps your body create immunity. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) suggests that anyone who is 9 months through 59 years old and traveling to or living in an area where the risk of yellow fever is present should be vaccinated.

If you’re planning to travel internationally, check the CDC website to see if you need to get any new vaccinations.

Groups of people who shouldn’t get the vaccine include:

  • people who have severe allergies to eggs, chicken proteins, or gelatin
  • infants younger than 6 months old
  • people who have HIV, AIDS, or other conditions that compromise the immune system

If you’re older than 60 and you’re considering traveling to an area that may have the virus, you should discuss vaccination with your doctor.

If you’re traveling with an infant who is 6 to 8 months old or you’re a nursing mother, you should either postpone travel to these areas if possible or talk to your doctor about vaccination.

The vaccine is considered extremely safe. A single dose provides protection for at least 10 years. The side effects may include:

  • a mild headache
  • muscle pain
  • fatigue
  • a low-grade fever

Other methods of prevention include using insect repellant, wearing clothing to reduce the amount of mosquito bites, and staying inside during peak times when insects bite.

Content licensed from:

Written by: Colleen Story
Published on: Aug 07, 2012
Medically reviewed on: Jan 12, 2016: [Ljava.lang.Object;@35bac5a2

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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