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The Test Sample
What is being tested?
Dengue fever is a viral infection transmitted to humans by mosquitoes that live in tropical and subtropical climates and carry the virus. Blood testing detects the dengue virus or antibodies produced in response to dengue infection.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), dengue infections have been reported in more than 100 countries from parts of Africa, the Americas, the Caribbean, the Eastern Mediterranean, Southeast Asia, and the Western Pacific. It is a fast emerging infectious disease, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), with an increasing number of cases and countries affected throughout the world. The actual number is not known because about 75% of cases are asymptomatic, but a recent estimate put the number of annual dengue infections as high as 390 million. Approximately 50 to 100 million symptomatic cases occur annually worldwide.
In the U.S., the majority of dengue cases occur in travelers returning from areas where dengue is endemic. Most dengue cases in U.S. citizens occur in people who live in Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Samoa and Guam. Outbreaks where a large number of cases occur in a defined area are rare in the U.S. In recent years, there have been small outbreaks in Texas and Hawaii and a few cases diagnosed in southern Florida.
Many individuals will develop no symptoms at all, or have only a mild illness when exposed to one of the four serotypes (1-4) of the dengue virus. For those who do develop symptoms, prognosis is still very good for full recovery within a few weeks. The most common initial symptoms are a sudden high fever (104°F or 40°C) and flu-like symptoms that appear roughly 4 to 7 days after being bitten by an infected mosquito (this is called the incubation period and can range from 3 to 14 days). Additional signs and symptoms may include severe headache, especially behind the eyes, muscle and joint pain, skin rash, nausea, vomiting, and swollen glands.
Some people who develop a fever will recover on their own with no lasting ill effects while others may progress to severe dengue fever (sometimes called Dengue Hemorrhagic Fever). If the disease progresses to this form, a new wave of symptoms will appear 3 to 7 days after initial symptoms and as the fever recedes. These may include nose bleeds, vomiting blood, passing blood in the stool, difficulty breathing and cold clammy skin, especially in the extremities. During the second phase, the virus may attack blood vessels (the vascular system), causing capillaries to leak fluid into the space around the lungs (pleural effusion) or into the abdominal cavity (ascites).
The loss of blood and fluid during the second phase, if untreated, can worsen and can be fatal. In order to avoid that complication (sometimes called Dengue Shock Syndrome), a healthcare practitioner may hospitalize a patient with severe dengue fever so that falling blood pressure and dehydration caused by the loss of blood and fluids can be managed while the disease runs its course – generally a period of one to two weeks. During the following week of recovery, a person may develop a second rash that lasts a week or more.
Dengue fever is usually diagnosed via some combination of blood tests because the body's immune response to the virus is dynamic and complex. Laboratory tests may include:
- Molecular tests for dengue virus (PCR)—detect the presence of the virus itself; these tests can diagnose dengue fever up to 7 days after the onset of symptoms and can be used to determine which of the 4 different serotypes of dengue virus is causing the infection.
- Antibody tests, IgM and IgG—detect antibodies produced by the immune system when a person has been exposed to the virus; these tests are most effective when performed at least 4 days after exposure.
- Complete blood count (CBC)—to look for low platelet count typical of the later stages of the illness and to detect the decrease in hemoglobin, hematocrit, and red blood cell (RBC) count (evidence of anemia) that would occur with blood loss associated with severe dengue fever
- Basic metabolic panel (BMP) – to monitor kidney function and look for evidence of dehydration that can occur with severe illness
How is the sample collected for testing?
A blood sample is collected by inserting a needle into a vein in the arm.
NOTE: If undergoing medical tests makes you or someone you care for anxious, embarrassed, or even difficult to manage, you might consider reading one or more of the following articles: Coping with Test Pain, Discomfort, and Anxiety, Tips on Blood Testing, Tips to Help Children through Their Medical Tests, and Tips to Help the Elderly through Their Medical Tests.
Another article, Follow That Sample, provides a glimpse at the collection and processing of a blood sample and throat culture.
Is any test preparation needed to ensure the quality of the sample?
No test preparation is needed.