Lindsay Lohan was released from a London hospital Wednesday, four days after being admitted for treatment of the Chikungunya virus, which she said she contracted last month after vacationing in Bora Bora.
Cases of the mosquito-transmitted Chikungunya (pronounced: chik-en-gun-ye) are rare in the United States but have surged since the initial outbreak in December 2013, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As of November 4, 2014, more than 1,600 travelers had returned to the U.S. with the virus. In an average year, that number is just 28.
Aileen Marty, MD, professor of infectious diseases at Florida International University, emphasized the risks of the virus, which isn't usually life-threatening. “It’s gone pandemic; it’s a worldwide problem,” she told Health. “Yes, [Lohan] got it in an exotic location. But you can contract the virus in many warm-weather locations like the Caribbean, and we have had some endemic cases here in Florida.”
Because the virus is spread through mosquitoes, which are only active in warm weather, most cases of Chikungunya are in places like the Caribbean, Central and South America, and the French Polynesian Islands (where Bora Bora is located). But as some American travelers head to those areas and contract the disease, it's possible that they could infect mosquitoes who bite them back at home when they have high levels of virus in their blood, Dr. Marty says.
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Which means that, in theory, people can unwittingly start the infection cycle in their own backyard. To that end, the first locally acquired case of Chikungunya was reported in Florida last July. And unfortunately, the bugs never really die off. “Over the winter, the mosquitoes are like a bear hibernating until it’s warm enough,” she said.
Lohan’s mother, Dina, told Newsday that Lindsay had been suffering from a high fever and joint pain before checking into the hospital, all standard symptoms of the virus, according to Dr. Marty. Other signs include headaches, muscle pain, and joint swelling.
“It’ll take a little less than a week to notice the symptoms, and then you’ll get a fever and pain in your joints," she said. "The best thing to do is to take an aspirin or other anti-inflammatories to calm that down.” However, some people may face more severe symptoms, like chronic arthritis. People over age 65 and those with high blood pressure, diabetes, or heart disease face a higher risk of complications, according to the CDC.
At this point, there’s no vaccine or cure for Chikungunya other than treating the individual symptoms, so if you’re heading to a warm locale, the only way to really protect yourself from the virus is to avoid getting bitten. Wear clothes that cover your arms and legs, and use mosquito repellant. The bugs carrying Chikungunya are mostly active during the day, the CDC says, and in general mosquitoes tend to be more attracted to pregnant women or beer drinkers since both groups tend to exhale more CO2 than other people.
“If you’re not traveling outside the U.S., you’re not going to have very many problems,” Dr. Marty said. “But if you’re headed overseas, stop at a travel medical clinic before you go. Do all the mosquito prevention that you can. Awareness is the most important thing.”