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Understanding Monkeypox

Monkeypox is an illness caused by a virus. It can cause fever, swollen lymph nodes, body aches, and a rash with blisters that hurt. The illness lasts about 2 to 4 weeks. It can spread from animals to people and spread from person to person. Monkeypox is most common in Central and West Africa. In spring 2022, monkeypox cases were reported in Europe, Australia, the Middle East, and the U.S. Most states have confirmed cases of monkeypox. Information about monkeypox in the U.S. is changing regularly. For the latest information, go to the CDC website.

What causes monkeypox?

Monkeypox is caused by a virus. It’s called monkeypox because it first showed up in 1958 in monkeys held for research. But experts don’t yet know all the animals that may carry monkeypox. African squirrels, rats, other rodents, and monkeys may spread it to people. People with monkeypox symptoms can then spread it to others through close contact. People who don’t have monkeypox symptoms can’t spread the virus to others.

The virus can spread in any of these ways:

  • Touching a sick person’s blisters
  • Breathing near a sick person
  • Kissing or having sex with a sick person
  • Touching infected animals, meat, or products made from infected animals
  • Touching clothing, bedding, or objects that have touched a sick animal or person
  • From an infected pregnant person to their baby, through the placenta

Who’s at risk for monkeypox?

The monkeypox virus spreads mostly through close, intimate contact with someone who has the virus. You’re at risk for the virus if you have direct, close contact with someone with monkeypox. Close contact means touching the rash, scabs, or body fluids of someone with monkeypox. Or handling items such as clothing or linens that touched the rash or body fluids of someone with monkeypox. Close contact means intimate physical contact, such as kissing, cuddling or sex. Pregnant people with monkeypox can spread the virus through the placenta to the fetus.

Symptoms of monkeypox

Symptoms can happen from 6 days up to 21 days after contact with a person who had monkeypox. When you have symptoms, you can spread the virus to other people.

The symptoms start with:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Sore or swollen lymph nodes in the neck, armpits, or groin
  • Muscle aches
  • Backache
  • Chills
  • Feeling very tired

Within 1 to 3 days, a rash with blisters will show up on your body. The rash starts with small red spots that have flat area or dimple in the middle. The spots then form a fluid-filled top over 1 to 2 days. These blisters can look like pimples.

The first spots may be in your mouth and on your tongue. They may show up on your face and spread to other parts of your body. They can spread to your whole body but be worse on your arms and legs. They can spread to the palms of your hands and the soles of your feet.

The blisters may be the size of sesame seeds up to the size of a pencil eraser or a little larger (2 to 10 mm). They may hurt. The illness lasts for 2 to 4 weeks. As the blisters dry up and form scabs, they may feel itchy. You may have dark spots where the rash was on your skin. After all scabs have fallen off, you won’t spread the virus to other people.

Diagnosing monkeypox

A healthcare provider will look at your blisters and ask about your symptoms. They will ask about recent travel or contact with sick people who had blisters. They may take a sample of fluid by swabbing your blisters. This is sent to a lab to look for the monkeypox virus.

Treatment for monkeypox

There is no specific treatment for monkeypox. Most people get better on their own over time. Some people with severe illness may need to be in a hospital for IV fluids and other care.

Antiviral medicines used for smallpox may help some people who are at high risk of severe illness. Your healthcare provider can tell you if medicine is available. Tell your healthcare provider if:

  • You are pregnant or breastfeeding
  • Have a problem with your immune system

Possible complications of monkeypox

In severe cases, monkeypox can lead to problems such as sepsis, encephalitis, or pneumonia. It may infect the eye. This can cause vision loss. Monkeypox can lead to death in up to 1 in 10 people who get it. This is much less common in places outside Africa.

Preventing monkeypox

If you’re planning to travel, check if the area has monkeypox. Go to the CDC website at www.cdc.gov/poxvirus/monkeypox/response/2022/world-map.html.

If you’re in an area that has monkeypox:

  • Don’t have close contact with sick people.
  • Don’t have close contact with a person who has blisters on their skin or genitals.
  • Don’t kiss, hug, or have sex with any person who is sick or has blisters.
  • Don’t touch anything used by a sick person. This includes clothes, bedding, or other objects.
  • Wash your hands often, especially if you are near a sick person or animals.
  • Stay away from animals that can spread monkeypox if you’re in Central or West Africa. This includes rodents such as rats, monkeys, and apes. Don’t touch anything that was in contact with a sick or dead animal.
  • Don’t use products made from wild animals in Africa. This includes creams, lotions, and powders.

If you had a vaccine against smallpox in the past, it may help protect you from monkeypox. Talk with your healthcare provider to learn more.

The CDC advises vaccination for people who have been exposed to monkeypox and people who are at higher risk of being exposed to monkeypox. Two vaccines are approved to help prevent monkeypox infection. Availability varies at this time. Talk with your healthcare provider about your situation and risk.

If you have symptoms of monkeypox

If you are in an area with monkeypox and have any symptoms:

  • Call a healthcare provider. Tell them you may have symptoms of monkeypox. Follow all instructions from the healthcare provider.
  • Limit contact with family members. Don’t kiss anyone or share eating or drinking utensils. Clean surfaces you touch with disinfectant. This is to help prevent the virus from spreading.
  • Stay away from work, school, and public places. Don’t use public transport.
  • Tell your healthcare provider about your recent travel. This includes local travel on public transport. Staff may need to find other people you have been in contact with.

For more information

To learn more about current outbreaks of monkeypox, go to:

Date last modified: 7/25/2022

Online Medical Reviewer: Ken Levin MD
Online Medical Reviewer: L Renee Watson MSN RN

Date Last Reviewed: 6/1/2022
© 2000-2022 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional’s instructions.

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