Dengue virus (DENV) causes a wide range of diseases in humans, from the acute febrile illness dengue fever (DF) to life-threatening dengue haemorrhagic fever/dengue shock syndrome. We developed four real-time quantitative PCR assays for each serotype of DENV based on computational analysis. These assays had high sensitivity and specificity without cross-reactivity for the four serotypes. To evaluate the performance of these assays in detecting and typing the virus in clinical samples, we analysed 64 serum samples from Guangdong during 2006. The results showed that 71 % of those samples were positive by the DEN-1 assay. The DENV assay results, in agreement with the serological tests and sequencing analysis, showed that the pathogen resulting in the DF explosion in Guangdong in 2006 belonged to DEN-1. Compared to the serological assays, the real-time PCR assays that we developed were much more sensitive in the 1–3 days after onset of the symptoms.