Dengue is a pantropic public health problem. In children, dengue shock syndrome (DSS) is the most common life-threatening complication. The ability to predict which patients may develop DSS may improve triage and treatment. To this end, we conducted a nested case-control comparison of the early host transcriptional features in 24 DSS patients and 56 sex-, age-, and virus serotype-matched uncomplicated (UC) dengue patients. In the first instance, we defined the "early dengue" profile. The transcriptional signature in acute rather than convalescent samples (≤72 h post-illness onset) was defined by an overabundance of interferon-inducible transcripts (31% of the 551 overabundant transcripts) and canonical gene ontology terms that included the following: response to virus, immune response, innate immune response, and inflammatory response. Pathway and network analyses identified STAT1, STAT2, STAT3, IRF7, IRF9, IRF1, CEBPB, and SP1 as key transcriptional factors mediating the early response. Strikingly, the only difference in the transcriptional signatures of early DSS and UC dengue cases was the greater abundance of several neutrophil-associated transcripts in patients who progressed to DSS, a finding supported by higher plasma concentrations of several canonical proteins associated with neutrophil degranulation (bactericidal/permeability-increasing protein [BPI], elastase 2 [ELA2], and defensin 1 alpha [DEF1A]). Elevated levels of neutrophil-associated transcripts were independent of the neutrophil count and also of the genotype of the infecting virus, as genome-length sequences of dengue virus serotype 1 (DENV-1) (n = 15) and DENV-2 (n = 3) sampled from DSS patients were phylogenetically indistinguishable from those sampled from uncomplicated dengue patients (32 DENV-1 and 9 DENV-2 sequences). Collectively, these data suggest a hitherto unrecognized association between neutrophil activation, pathogenesis, and the development of DSS and point to future strategies for guiding prognosis.