How Yellow Fever Is Treated

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Woman receiving vaccination.
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Treating yellow fever doesn't involve antiviral medications like you might suppose. That's because no antiviral drugs have shown effectiveness against this particular virus.

Still, treatment is essential, especially for those whose disease progresses into the potentially deadly toxic phase. Most cases don't get that far, but it's always important to manage symptoms well so you don't develop complications.

Home Care for Mild Cases

People infected with the yellow fever virus generally start having symptoms—high fever, severe headaches, nausea, vomiting, and dizziness—that last for two to four days before going away on their own.

During that time, you'll want to make sure to keep yourself well hydrated because of the fever. If you're not able to stay hydrated at home, you may need to be admitted to the hospital. Be sure you know the symptoms of dehydration, as it can be dangerous all by itself.

Over-the-Counter Drugs

When you've got a fever, headaches, and widespread body aches—which all are common in yellow fever—your first thought might be that you should take an aspirin or other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil) or naproxen (Aleve.) Don't! Those medications can increase the risk of bleeding. If your illness becomes severe you could experience bleeding as a symptom and those drugs could make it a lot worse.

Acetaminophen, the drug in Tylenol and many other over-the-counter medications, is a better choice for controlling symptoms of this disease because it doesn't increase your risk of bleeding. Make sure you follow the directions and aren't getting acetaminophen from more than one medication, to avoid overdose.

You may also want to take medications for nausea, especially if you're having trouble keeping food down.

Work With Your Doctor

Your doctor can recommend specific over-the-counter drugs or prescribe drugs that may be necessary depending on your symptoms. Again, these are just to help make you comfortable—they won't have an effect on the virus itself. You have to wait for the illness to subside on its own.

Hospital Treatment

In some cases, yellow fever appears to go away after a few days only for the fever and a host of serious symptoms to rear their heads a few days later. That means the disease has progressed to the severe, toxic stage.

If your yellow fever moves into this stage, be sure to get medical help right away. Between 20 percent and 50 percent of people who reach this stage will die within the next two weeks.

Again, we don't have any antiviral medications that can help you. However, hospital care is necessary to manage severe symptoms, which can include:

  • Jaundice (yellowing of skin and eyes) due to liver damage
  • Bleeding from the gums, nose, eyes, and/or stomach
  • Bloody stools and vomit
  • Confusion and delirium
  • Shock
  • Kidney, liver, or other organ failure
  • Seizures
  • Possible coma

That's a scary list, but proper medical care is shown to greatly increase your odds of survival. Do not hesitate—get treatment as soon as possible.

Babies and people over 50 are more likely to have a severe case of yellow fever and to die from it, making immediate treatment especially crucial.

What to Expect

At the hospital, you can expect medications to help bring down your fever, an IV to keep you from getting dehydrated, and other treatments depending on your specific symptoms and their severities.

The good news is that people who survive this stage usually recover fully. Their organ damage heals over time and they're not left with any permanent problems.

Also, once you've had yellow fever, you're immune to it. Still, the best way to protect yourself is to prevent yellow fever in the first place.

Preventing Yellow Fever
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