What is Yellow fever?

Yellow fever is a viral disease. The virus is most often transmitted through the bite of infected mosquitoes. It has also been transmitted through blood transfusions and organ transplants.

Yellow fever is a serious, potentially fatal disease. It can cause jaundice, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, high fever and seizures.

In the United States, the risk of a person contracting the disease is highest during the summer months.

How does yellow fever spread?

Yellow fever is a viral disease transmitted through human-to-human contact. It is not spread from animal to animal.

Yellow fever can spread through:

  • Mosquitoes
  • Birds
  • Food
  • Water

It is most common in tropical and subtropical climates, particularly in Africa, South America, the Caribbean, Mexico, the Pacific Islands, India, China, and Japan.

What are the symptoms of yellow fever?

Yellow fever symptoms can occur several days after infection. The disease progresses rapidly from the point of infection. The symptoms of yellow fever can include:

  • Abdominal pain and nausea
  • Jaundice
  • Headache
  • Muscle aches
  • Chills
  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal swelling
  • Heartburn
  • General weakness
  • Dehydration

Yellow fever can lead to the following complications:

  • Bleeding
  • Enlargement of the spleen
  • Kidney impairment
  • Kidney failure

How is yellow fever diagnosed?

A yellow fever diagnosis is made based on a physical examination and laboratory testing.

The physical examination may include a history of travel to or residence in a yellow fever endemic region. The physical exam may also include a rectal examination to check for yellow fever. This test is used to check for yellow fever in a person who may have been exposed to the virus.

The laboratory tests used to confirm a yellow fever diagnosis include:

  • Serologic testing
  • Viral isolation
  • Electron microscopy
  • Serologic testing in a laboratory and viral isolation in cell culture
  • Enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA)
  • Antigen detection
  • Western blot

How is yellow fever treated?

The treatment for yellow fever depends on the severity of the disease and the person’s overall health.

Most cases of yellow fever are mild and self-limiting. Treatment consists of supportive care.

If the person has yellow jaundice, the doctor may prescribe a special diet.

A person with yellow fever who has severe symptoms that do not improve may require hospitalization. The person may also be given intravenous fluids.

How is yellow fever prevented?

The yellow fever vaccine is recommended for:

  • People traveling to, or living in, a yellow fever endemic region
  • Children and adults who have not recently received the yellow fever vaccine

The yellow fever vaccine is available as a one-time shot or as a series of three vaccinations given over six months.

The yellow fever vaccine can be given as an injection or as a nasal spray. It is given to children between the ages of 1 and 5 years old.

Children ages 6 to 23 years old and adults older than 24 years old who have never received the yellow fever vaccination may receive the yellow fever vaccination.

People who are traveling to or living in a yellow fever endemic region should take precautions to prevent getting the disease.

This includes:

  • Avoiding mosquito bites
  • Wearing long-sleeved shirts and long pants
  • Using insect repellent
  • Using a mosquito net
  • Staying in a room with air conditioning
  • Having a trusted adult with them in case they develop symptoms
  • Wearing gloves and avoiding touching their eyes, nose, and mouth

Outlook for yellow fever

Yellow fever is usually a mild disease. It is typically mild and self-limiting.

For people who are at high risk of the disease, the outlook is generally good. It is uncommon for people to develop complications.

However, severe cases can occur and lead to death.

The yellow fever vaccination is an effective way to prevent the disease.

What is the long-term outlook?

The outlook for people who are infected with yellow fever is good. Most people with yellow fever have mild symptoms. The illness clears up in a few days.

If a person is infected with yellow fever during pregnancy, the outlook is generally good. The baby is usually healthy.

The yellow jaundice is the most dangerous complication of yellow fever. It can be severe and lead to death.

The yellow jaundice is caused by the build-up of bilirubin in the blood. This condition is called kernicterus.

Kernicterus is a serious condition that can cause brain damage and lead to death.

People who are infected with yellow fever are at risk of developing kernicterus. However, the risk is reduced by receiving a yellow fever vaccination.

When should I call my doctor?

People who have been exposed to the virus should call their doctor right away if they develop symptoms.

A person with symptoms should also call their doctor if they have recently traveled to or lived in a yellow fever endemic area.

A person who is showing signs of yellow fever should seek immediate medical care.

Diagnosing yellow fever

Doctors can diagnose yellow fever based on a physical examination and a few laboratory tests.

The main laboratory test used to diagnose yellow fever is the ELISA test. This test is used to detect the yellow-brown blood that is a sign of yellow fever.

The ELISA test involves the following steps:

  • A healthcare professional will draw a blood sample and send it to a laboratory.
  • The laboratory will test the blood sample for the presence of the yellow-brown blood.
  • The laboratory will also test the blood sample for the presence of the virus.

Doctors may also use molecular tests to confirm the diagnosis.

Treating yellow fever

Treatment for yellow fever generally involves supportive care.

A healthcare professional may give the person acetaminophen for fever, pain, and muscle aches. They might also give the person a steroid to help reduce the swelling in the body.

Most people recover from yellow fever without any long-term side effects.

If a person develops severe symptoms, they will likely receive supportive care and intravenous fluids. The person may also receive intravenous (IV) fluids if they develop yellow jaundice.

A person who develops yellow jaundice will require treatment to reduce the bilirubin in their blood. This is known as phototherapy.


Yellow fever infection is a serious viral infection that can be transmitted through mosquito bites.

It is common for people to develop yellow fever after traveling to a region where the infection is common.

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