PUFA might modulate inflammatory responses involved in the development of severe dengue. We aimed to examine whether serum PUFA concentrations in patients diagnosed with dengue fever (DF) were related to the risk of progression to dengue haemorrhagic fever/dengue shock syndrome (DHF/DSS). A secondary aim was to assess correlations between fatty acids (FA) and inflammatory biomarkers in patients with DF. We conducted a prospective case–control study nested within a cohort of patients who were diagnosed with DF and followed during the acute episode. We compared the distribution of individual FA (% of total FA) at onset of fever between 109 cases who progressed to DHF/DSS and 235 DF non-progressing controls using unconditional logistic regression. We estimated correlations between baseline FA and cytokine concentrations and compared FA concentrations between the acute episode and >1 year post-convalescence in a subgroup. DHA was positively related to progression to DHF/DSS (multivariable adjusted OR (AOR) for DHA in quintile 5 v. 1=5·34, 95 % CI 2·03, 14·1; Ptrend=0·007). Dihomo-γ-linolenic acid (DGLA) was inversely associated with progression (AOR for quintile 5 v. 1=0·30, 95 % CI 0·13, 0·69; Ptrend=0·007). Pentadecanoic acid concentrations were inversely related to DHF/DSS. Correlations of PUFA with cytokines at baseline were low. PUFA were lower during the acute episode than in a disease-free period. In conclusion, serum DHA in patients with DF predicts higher odds of progression to DHF/DSS whereas DGLA and pentadecanoic acid predict lower odds.