What is monkeypox? And how do people catch it?
The topic of monkeypox has come up in news headlines recently, leaving many people with questions. With the COVID-19 pandemic still on everyone’s minds, it’s natural to want to know more about this rare disease that’s been discovered in pockets across a handful of countries and several states in the U.S.
The first thing to understand is that there’s no cause for concern in the general population. Monkeypox isn’t naturally found in the U.S., and the few cases that have been reported were directly related to international travel to (or animal imports from) areas where it’s more common.
With that said, we’ve rounded up answers to some of the most common questions about monkeypox to help you stay informed.
What is monkeypox?
Monkeypox is a rare disease primarily found near tropical rainforests in remote parts of some central and west African countries. It’s caused by the monkeypox virus – the Orthopoxvirus genus in the family Poxviridae – and is a part of the same virus family as smallpox, although monkeypox is much milder in comparison.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Monkeypox is characterized by early flu-like symptoms of fever, headache and body aches, followed by a rash on the face and body.
The incubation period (time from initial infection to the start of symptoms) is typically around 7-14 days, and the illness can last 2-4 weeks.
The origin of monkeypox
Monkeypox was first discovered in 1958 when a colony of monkeys used for research became sick with a pox-like rash. There’s a misconception that the virus was caused by monkeys, when in truth, it got its name because monkeys were the first known victims.
The original source of monkeypox is unknown, but infectious disease experts believe that small animals like rodents and monkeys can get the disease and pass it to humans. The first known human cases of monkeypox happened in 1970, and since then, cases are closely tracked and monitored to prevent further infection.
What’s the difference between monkeypox and chickenpox?
While they’re both in the “pox virus” category and both give us uncomfortable bumps, monkeypox and chickenpox are caused by different viruses. Chickenpox is caused by the varicella-zoster virus (the same one that causes shingles), while monkeypox is an Orthopoxvirus (which also causes smallpox).
As far as symptoms go, monkeypox is unique for causing swollen lymph nodes and a fever before the rash appears. The rash sores also usually mature more slowly than those of chickenpox.
Should I be worried about getting monkeypox?
The risk for contracting monkeypox is very low for the general public, so there’s no cause for widespread concern. Generally, only people who live in, or travel to, certain tropical areas in central and western Africa are at an increased risk – as well as anyone handling animals imported from those areas, or in close contact with someone with monkeypox.
With that said, recently the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) reported a small number of cases of the virus – at least one being an adult who was likely exposed to the infection while traveling abroad. Health officials are investigating and maintain that the risk to the general public is still low, but it’s important to stay informed.
You can reference the CDC’s 2022 Monkeypox U.S. Map & Case Count for the latest case information.
Monkeypox often begins with early symptoms that are similar to the flu, as well as swollen lymph nodes (lymphadenopathy), which is the body’s way of ramping up the immune system to fight infection. A few days after initial symptoms begin, a rash develops.
Early symptoms of monkeypox can include:
- Muscle aches
- Swollen lymph nodes (lymphadenopathy)
Within 1-3 days of initial symptoms (sometimes a little longer), the person will typically develop a rash.
- The rash usually appears as flat, red bumps that later become fluid-filled sores. The sores may resemble blisters or pimples.
- The rash usually begins on the face and can also occur inside the mouth. It can then spread to the body, including the palms of hands, soles of feet and genital areas.
- Rash sores progress through various stages until they become dry scabs that fall off as the illness resolves.
- Sores continue to be contagious until the scab falls off.
One important thing to note: People experience symptoms of monkeypox differently. Some have a rash, but no other symptoms. Some only have a rash on their face, while others have it more widespread across their body. There’s a range of variation in these symptoms from person to person.
How does someone get monkeypox?
In humans, monkeypox is typically spread through close contact with an infected person, especially by touching monkeypox sores or bodily fluids. It can also be spread through respiration (breathing) during prolonged face-to-face contact with an infected person, which is why it’s important to keep a distance from anyone suspected of having the virus. Especially avoid physical contact with their skin, clothes or bedding. And because it can be transmitted through close contact, intimacy, including sexual contact, is not recommended with someone who may have monkeypox.
People can also get the virus through contact with an infected animal, or the animal’s cage or bedding. This typically happens in areas endemic (or native) to the virus, or through contact with an animal imported from one of those areas.
How is monkeypox diagnosed?
Doctors can usually diagnose monkeypox with a physical exam. The characteristic rash is often present, as well as swollen lymph nodes, which can differentiate monkeypox from similar illnesses, like smallpox. Frequently, there’s also history of the patient having exposure to an infected person or animal.
Additionally, doctors can confirm the disease by taking a sample from skin lesions and examining it under a microscope, or by sending a sample to a special lab that can use polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing to determine the presence of the virus in the patient’s DNA.
Treatment for monkeypox
Most people with monkeypox get better on their own without needing treatment. Doctors recommend that patients rest, stay hydrated and keep sores clean. They may also suggest taking over-the-counter pain medications like ibuprofen or acetaminophen for discomfort associated with the early symptoms, like fever, headache and body aches, as well as pain associated with the rash.
There’s no clear treatment for monkeypox at this time, but the antivirals used to treat smallpox may be beneficial. Additionally, a two-dose vaccine called Jynneos can also be used to prevent monkeypox. The vaccine is usually given to people who are at higher risk for the disease, such as health care workers of monkeypox patients, close personal contacts of those infected, and people who might be at high risk for a severe case of the virus.
The CDC isn’t recommending broader use of the vaccine at this time, but they continue to evaluate their guidance as they monitor the situation.
How to prevent yourself from getting monkeypox
Despite the risk being low, it’s always wise to practice healthy habits in your daily life to prevent getting or spreading illness. Whether you want to keep yourself from getting monkeypox, influenza, COVID-19 or another illness, here are some good habits to follow:
- Wash your hands frequently
- Don’t share food or drinks
- Keep a distance from anyone you know who is sick, and avoid touching their skin, clothes or bedding
- Maintain a 6-foot social distance from others in public when possible
- Keep surfaces clean (according to the CDC, common household disinfectants can kill the monkeypox virus)
If you have questions about monkeypox or another health-related topic, your primary care doctor is a great person to ask.
You can also get in touch with one of our nurses 24/7, 365 days a year at no charge. They can answer questions or give you advice based on the symptoms you’re experiencing and help you decide if it’s time to see a primary care doctor.
Call the HealthPartners CareLine℠ at 800-551-0859 or the Park Nicollet Nurse Line at 952-993-4665.