Cases of the mosquito-transmitted chikungunya (pronounced: chik-en-gun-ye) are rare in the United States but surged in 2014 after an initial outbreak in December 2013, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In 2014, a total of 2,811 cases of chikungunya virus disease were reported from U.S. states, while 4,710 cases were reported from U.S. territories.
Before 2006, the disease was rarely seen in U.S. travelers. From 2006 to 2013, an average of just 28 cases were reported annually, according to the CDC. After 2014, cases have numbered in the hundreds.
Most cases of chikungunya occur in places like the Caribbean, Central and South America, and the French Polynesian Islands. 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, Aileen Marty, MD, professor of infectious diseases at Florida International University, tells Health.
Which means that, in theory, people can unwittingly start the infection cycle in their own backyard. The first locally acquired case of chikungunya was reported in Florida in 2013. And unfortunately, the bugs never really die off. “Over the winter, the mosquitoes are like a bear hibernating until it’s warm enough,” Dr. Marty says.
Lindsay Lohan contracted the virus in Bora Bora in January 2015. Her mother Dina told Newsday that Lindsay had been suffering from a high fever and joint pain before checking into the hospital, all standard chikungunya symptoms, according to Dr. Marty. Other signs of chikungunya 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 says. "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, but chikungunya isn't usually life-threatening, Dr. Marty says.
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 says. “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.”
This post was originally published on January 22, 2015 and has been updated for accuracy.