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Monkeypox

Monkeypox has been making the news following a surge in new cases in summer 2022. This outbreak includes reports of cases in several countries where monkeypox hasn’t been seen before. This includes the United States. On July 23, 2022, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced the monkeypox outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, and on Aug. 4, 2022, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra declared the ongoing spread of monkeypox virus in the United States a Public Health Emergency. As of August 4, 2022, there were 7,102 confirmed cases in 48 states, Washington DC, and Puerto Rico.

What is monkeypox

Monkeypox is a rare disease caused by infection with the monkeypox virus. It has similar symptoms to smallpox, but it is milder and rarely fatal. Though the names sound alike, monkeypox is not related to chickenpox.

Symptoms of monkeypox

Most infected people have mild cases, but there is risk for serious disease. Monkeypox can cause several symptoms, including:

  • Fever
  • Rash
  • Headache
  • Muscle aches
  • Back ache
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Chills
  • Exhaustion

Most people with monkeypox report a rash that can look like pimples or blisters. It can appear on the face, including the inside of the mouth. It can also appear on other parts of the body including the hands, feet, chest, genitals, or anus. Sometimes, people get a rash first, followed by other symptoms. Other people only experience a rash.

What causes monkeypox

Monkeypox is caused by a virus. The virus can spread from person-to-person in several ways:

  • Direct contact with the rash, scabs, or body fluids that are infected
  • Respiratory secretions (breathing) during prolonged face to face contact or during kissing, cuddling, or sex
  • Touching items (like clothing or linens) that have touched the rash or body fluids of someone who is infected
  • An infected pregnant person spreading it to the fetus through the placenta

You can also get monkeypox by being scratched or bitten by an infected animal. It can also come from meat or other products made from an infected animal.

How is monkeypox diagnosed?

Because the symptoms of monkeypox are similar to other diseases, your doctor will have to check for symptoms that are unique to monkeypox. Swollen lymph nodes are one such symptom. Your doctor may feel along your neck, armpits, or groin to check your lymph nodes for swelling.

If you have a rash or sore, your doctor may use a swab to take a sample and send it to a lab. The lab will test the sample for monkeypox.

Can monkeypox be prevented or avoided?

The risk to most people from monkeypox remains low, and there are many things you can do to reduce your risk even more. Take steps to avoid monkeypox as you would other viruses. These include:

  • Avoiding close skin contact with anyone who has a monkeypox-like rash (touching, kissing, cuddling, or having sex)
  • Not sharing utensils or cups with someone who has monkeypox
  • Not handling bedding, towels, or clothing of an infected person
  • Washing your hands often with soap and water
  • Using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer

The CDC offers guidance for social gatherings and safer sex practices.

There are vaccines for the monkeypox virus, but these are not yet available in all places. These are recommended for people who have been exposed and who may be at higher risk of being exposed. Monkeypox vaccine availability will be increasing very soon, so check with your doctor if you feel you would benefit from getting the vaccine.

Monkeypox treatment

There are no treatments specifically for monkeypox. But because it is similar to smallpox, treatments for smallpox have been effective in treating monkeypox.

Antiviral drugs, such as tecovirimat, may be prescribed by your doctor if you are more likely to get severely ill.

Living with monkeypox

The version of monkeypox in the current outbreak typically causes mild symptoms for 2-4 weeks and is rarely fatal. The CDC reports that while most people who contract Monkeypox virus will recover, it is a more dangerous condition for those who are immune compromised. Children under age 8, those with compromised immune systems, and those who are pregnant or breastfeeding may be more likely to suffer a more severe form of the illness.

The most common long-term effects will likely be scarring from the skin rash and possibly lasting vision loss in cases of eye involvement, which could lead damage to the cornea.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • Am I at a high risk for getting monkeypox?
  • What can I do to avoid monkeypox?
  • Should I get vaccinated for monkeypox?
  • I’m pregnant or breastfeeding, what precautions should I take to avoid passing monkeypox along to my baby?

Resources

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control: Monkeypox

The Cleveland Clinic: Monkeypox

This article was created by familydoctor.org editorial staff and reviewed by Erin Corriveau, MD, MPH.

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