Growing up on a farm in Devon, my local A&E practically reserved a seat for me and my regular accident-prone antics. Falling out of trees, off horses or into rivers – I was always bandaged or bruised in some way. When I left home to go travelling, the biggest joke between my family and friends was that I needed to be bubble-wrapped before venturing to Asia, to limit my chances of injury or illness.
Sure enough, less than two months into my trip, the inevitable happened. It wasn’t an accident or fall that left me bedridden for over a week – it was the dreaded dengue fever.
For those of you who don’t know, dengue fever is a tropical virus transmitted by mosquitoes. The best case scenario for sufferers is experiencing migraines, sky-rocketing temperature and aching joints. You may have heard of dengue being referred to as ‘bone breaking’, on account of the pain it can cause. In the worst case scenario, it can be fatal.
Saturday night dengue fever
My illness decided to kick in once I had travelled to Koh Rong Island in Cambodia, which was particularly inconvenient as I was staying in a tent on the beach, far away from any healthcare. The island paradise soon turned into a bit of a nightmare when I started to suffer from the most unglamorous symptom ever; constipation. I could barely eat anything due to the discomfort, and I was gradually starting to feel more lethargic and nauseous. I would become exhausted after five minutes of sea kayaking – and believe me, it really wasn’t tiring work. My boyfriend Ollie was forced to paddle me around while I lay down on the kayak.
My symptoms worsened rapidly over the space of a week and every day Ollie urged me to visit a doctor. Anything you read about Cambodia warns you not to get ill there as the healthcare is generally terrible, so for days I pushed away the idea of getting medical help, until I figured there was no other option.
Check out our practical guide to dealing with dengue fever.
Once back on the mainland after a particularly uncomfortable speedboat journey, I had a consultation that lasted a minute and resulted only in me being given a handful of laxatives. It cost me over $100.
Cue yet more days of my health rapidly sledging down a particularly steep hill. A high temperature and migraines forced me to go back to the doctor. He hooked me onto a drip and told me I had the flu. At this point, I was exhausted. I had sharp stomach pains and was sweating buckets. I figured anything would help so we took a few funny pictures of me and my cannula and were on our way – after another hefty bill. Ollie and family back home in the UK saved the day by phoning our insurance providers and sorting out all of the information they needed in order to cover my costs directly with the hospital, so always ensure that you or a family member have the means to contact your insurance company from anywhere in the world.
Down with the sickness
Fast forward another two days and I had hit rock bottom. With temperatures of 40+ degrees and migraines that felt like my head was undergoing major building works from the inside, I was stuck in a village which suffered from power cuts for days on end. I’d had enough. All day I lay in bed in silence, listening to my tummy rumble – I hadn’t been able to hold down any food for days.
Still, my doctor at Sihanoukville International Clinic insisted I had the flu. My exhausted body was having none of it – whilst I had absolutely no idea what was wrong with me, it was very apparent that it was more serious than the flu. After a quick argument with the doctor, he finally agreed to conduct blood tests and had me stay a night at the hospital with constant drips – for the ‘flu’. A few hours later, Ollie came into my room with a serious case of the nervous giggles. Between sniggers he informed me of my diagnosis. We did what we do best and laughed off the scary news, because it just had to be me that got ill abroad.
Dengue fever was never something that crossed my mind and I had never considered my illness to be anything serious. Suddenly my bite-covered body and symptoms joined up, and it all made sense. We had been using insect repellent relentlessly, but the mozzies had been feisty throughout the country so we hadn’t prevented bites.
Luckily for me, my case of dengue wasn’t as serious as some, and despite some warnings I didn’t need to be flown to Bangkok for further treatment. While the idea of being rushed away in a helicopter did make the whole arrangement sound a hell of a lot more glamorous, it was a relief.
My hospital bill came to thousands of dollars, which would have cut my trip in half had I not been covered by insurance. Always make sure your travel insurance covers tropical illnesses before you go away, even if you’re not as prone to accidents as I am, because you never know when you may use it.
The only way is up
My stay in hospital lasted four long days, in which I was only allowed to eat rice soup (a delicious lukewarm water “soup” with a few grains of rice floating around for good measure) or porridge. It didn’t help when Ollie sat at the end of my bed eating pie or whatever extravagant meal he bought each night. I had to wheel my drip around everywhere and my hair, which normally resembles a bird’s nest anyway, became one big clump from just lying around doing nothing. On the plus side, we did get to teach my lovely nurses how to play Connect 4, albeit not very well.
Whilst the whole experience was painful, uncomfortable and scary, it was soon over and the only way was up for the rest of the trip. My main pearls of worldly wisdom are to suck it up and take a trip to the hospital if you’re experiencing any symptoms of dengue fever, or any other serious illness. Whilst you may feel like a drama queen, or as though your financial situation couldn’t handle a hospital bill, your health should always be the most important thing.
Symptoms of dengue fever can take up to ten days to surface after being bitten, so don’t push it out of the picture even if you’re back on home turf. When it comes to health, it truly is better to be safe than sorry!