Monkeypox has been declared a global health emergency. What’s going on with this new virus? Should we anticipate Covid-style precautions? Is it dangerous? What are the symptoms, and what should we do if we’re concerned about exposure? Hancock Health has your answers.
What is monkeypox?
Monkeypox is an infection caused by the monkeypox virus. Despite the name, monkeypox is not related to chickenpox. Instead, it known as an orthopoxvirus, similar to but less severe than smallpox. Monkeypox may be new to our headlines, but it was identified in laboratory primates in 1958. Human monkeypox was first detected in 1970. Until now, the disease primarily affected people in central and western Africa. However, the current outbreak has spread to more than 18,000 people worldwide, and that number is expected to rise.
What are the signs and symptoms of monkeypox?
Monkeypox typically begins with a fever, headache, muscle aches, fatigue and enlarged lymph nodes, symptoms that can be mistaken for the flu or other ailments. A few days later, patients notice the telltale rash that starts on the face and spreads to the palm, arms, legs and other parts of the body. The rash progresses from small spots to raised, tiny blisters, which can then become larger, pus-filled blisters. Once the spots scab over, a patient is no longer considered contagious. The course of the rash takes around two to four weeks. In some cases, patients carry the virus but do not develop the rash. These patients may still be able to transmit the disease.
Monkeypox is usually mild and rarely fatal. Complications can arise in small children as well as people who are immunocompromised and those who are pregnant or breastfeeding. Some patients may experience scarring from the rash. Other serious complications include pulmonary distress or pneumonia. Vision loss may occur when lesions on the eye become infected.
How is monkeypox spread?
Fortunately, the disease does not spread as easily as other viruses. Direct contact with a rash, scab or bodily fluid of a person with monkeypox is the main means of transmitting the disease. Most cases are linked to skin-to-skin contact, where the virus enters through broken skin or mucus membranes in the nose, mouth, rectum or anus. Occasionally, people can catch it by inhaling a patient’s respiratory droplets during prolonged, close contact. In rarer cases, a person may contract the virus by touching items or surfaces shared by someone with active symptoms. Pregnant mothers can pass the virus to their unborn children.
Although most current cases have been diagnosed in gay and bisexual men, the World Health Organization warns that the disease is not limited to these populations and can be spread to anyone who has close contact with an infected person.
Can monkeypox be treated?
Most people with monkeypox can safely treat their symptoms at home. Over-the-counter medicines can be used to treat the fever and itching associated with monkeypox. Patients should avoid contact with others while they have open lesions. If possible, isolate in a room away from other household members and clean frequently touched surfaces often. Everyone in the household should wear tight-fitting masks and wash their hands frequently.
Certain antiviral drugs and vaccines may reduce the disease’s symptoms and severity. However, these treatments are usually reserved for people who have been exposed to the virus or who are at risk for dangerous complications. If you have been in close contact with someone with monkeypox, ask your doctor if a vaccine is right for you.
Should I be worried?
Despite the attention-grabbing headlines, monkeypox remains a rare disease in the United States. The disease is rarely fatal, and most people recover without incident. You can lower the risk of transmission by avoiding skin-to-skin contact with people who have a rash that looks like monkeypox. Wash your hands often with soap and water or alcohol-based sanitizer, which is always good for reducing the transmission of viruses like the common cold or flu.
If you are concerned about monkeypox or have more questions, contact your family physician or find a Hancock Health healthcare professional through our Find-A-Doctor online tool.