What Is Monkeypox?

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Monkeypox is a rare disease caused by a zoonotic virus. This means it can be spread from animals to humans.

Monkeypox is caused by a virus that is closely linked to the virus that causes smallpox. While its symptoms often mimic those of smallpox, monkeypox is likely to be less severe.

The monkeypox virus is spread through close contact with a diseased person, diseased animal, or objects that contain the virus. It can also infect an unborn baby whose mother has the disease.

There is no approved treatment for monkeypox, so care generally involves symptom management. However, because of genetic similarities to smallpox, antiviral drugs used to treat smallpox may be used to treat monkeypox infections.

This article discusses monkeypox symptoms, causes, diagnosis, and treatment.

monkeypox

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Types of Monkeypox

Monkeypox occurs from one of two viral clades, which originate in different geographic regions. A clade is a group of organisms that have a common ancestor.

The disease can be categorized into one of two groups: either the Congo Basin clade or the West African clade. The Congo Basin clade causes more severe symptoms, resulting in up to 10% mortality (rate of death). The less harmful West African clade results in about 1% mortality, and is the outbreak experienced in 2022.

Monkeypox Symptoms

A monkeypox infection usually starts with symptoms that can be mistaken for the flu or many other common infections. Symptoms usually last between two and four weeks before you feel better, though severe illness (lasting longer) can sometimes occur.

The disease may begin without symptoms. However, it usually starts with the following symptoms that can occur between five and 21 days after infection:

After about one to three days, a rash or lesions appear. The lesions usually begin on your face, then spread to other areas, including the palms of your hands and the soles of your feet.

Monkeypox vs. Smallpox

While the symptoms of monkeypox can mimic smallpox, there is one key symptom that distinguishes one disease from the other. The monkeypox virus can make your lymph nodes swell (lymphadenopathy), while smallpox does not affect them.

Monkeypox lesions follow a predictable set of stages similar to those that occur in smallpox. These stages are:

  1. Macules (flat, discolored lesions)
  2. Papules (lesions have progressed from flat or raised)
  3. Vesicles (lesions filled with clear fluid)
  4. Pustules (raised bumps filled with yellow fluid)
  5. Scabs (hard, crusty patches that fall off as healing begins)

Transmission

The virus that causes monkeypox is spread through close physical contact with an infected person or animal. It can also be transmitted from contaminated materials to humans. Also, an infected mother can pass the virus to her unborn baby.

Human-to-human transmission typically occurs from close contact with an infected person's respiratory secretions, skin lesions, or contaminated materials. An infected person is considered contagious when they develop symptoms until their blisters scab over and dry.

While monkeypox is not regarded as a sexually transmitted infection (STI), the virus can be spread during intimate contact that occurs during sexual activities.

Transmission from animals to humans usually occurs in one of the following methods:

  • Getting bitten or scratched by an infected animal
  • Preparing or eating meat from an infected animal
  • Using products made from infected animals

Diagnosis

When there is a known outbreak, monkeypox can be diagnosed by symptoms that include a rash that begins in your mouth before moving to your face, extremities, and the rest of your body. The presence of swollen lymph nodes can be used to distinguish monkeypox from other diseases.

A laboratory test can provide a definitive diagnosis of monkeypox. The test uses polymerase chain reaction (PCR), which detects DNA (genetic material) from the virus to confirm the diagnosis. Samples taken from the lesions or their fluids provide the most accurate results.

Treatment

There are no specific treatments for infections of the monkeypox virus. However, patients may benefit from therapy with antivirals made to treat smallpox. This option is usually reserved for immunocompromised people who become infected. This type of treatment includes the following antiviral drugs:

  • Vistide (cidofovir)
  • Tembexa (brincidofovir)
  • Tpoxx (tecovirimat)

A vaccine called Jynneos was approved in 2019 for the prevention of smallpox and monkeypox. This two-injection vaccine is up to 85% effective in preventing monkeypox. Jynneos can also be effective in preventing the onset of monkeypox when it's administered within four days of exposure.

Prognosis

Monkeypox is usually a self-limiting (tends to go away on its own) disease that usually runs its course in about 14 to 21 days. However, it's possible for some people to experience severe symptoms and require medical treatment.

Severe cases are most likely to occur among children. Factors such as the extent of viral exposure, the patient's health status, and the presence of underlying immune deficiencies can lead to complications that include the following conditions:

Coping

Contact your healthcare provider if you develop symptoms common with monkeypox. In its early stages, monkeypox can mimic many other types of infections, such as chicken pox. Getting an accurate diagnosis is key to receiving the right treatment for your condition.

If you are diagnosed with monkeypox, follow the advice of your healthcare provider regarding treatment. If you seek medical attention early, you may be able to reduce or prevent infection by getting the vaccine.

Your provider can also guide you in preventing the transmission of monkeypox to other household members and to the public.

Summary

Monkeypox is a rare disease that can be spread through close contact with a diseased person, diseased animal, or objects that contain the virus. It can also infect an unborn baby whose mother has the disease.

Monkeypox usually resolves on its own within two to four weeks. Problems are rare, and often limited to children and those with other health problems.

A Word From Verywell

Your risk of contracting monkeypox is relatively low. Monkeypox is not well-known in the United States, and getting a diagnosis with this new infectious disease can cause anxiety.

While it may not be familiar to the U.S. population, the virus has been active in Africa since 1958. Your treatment plan is based on the medical community's experience and success in treating African patients for more than six decades.

Since the disease is usually self-limiting, you can look forward to feeling better within two to four weeks. While you're sick, maintain your body's needs for proper hydration and nutrition to promote healing.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How is monkeypox transmitted?

    Monkeypox is transmitted through close physical contact with an infected person, infected animal, or object contaminated with the virus. Human-to-human transmission is most likely when you interact with a person who has symptoms of the disease. Animal-to-human transmission usually occurs after a bite, scratch, or eating an infected animal.

  • Is there a cure for monkeypox?

    There is no known cure for monkeypox. Treatment often includes the same antiviral drugs used for smallpox. These therapies can help reduce symptoms. If you receive your diagnosis early in the disease, the administration of the monkeypox vaccine may help reduce or prevent symptoms.

  • How dangerous is monkeypox?

    While monkeypox is related to smallpox, its symptoms are less severe. Most cases of monkeypox resolve on their own within two to four weeks without leaving serious side effects. Your healthcare provider can help you determine your risk of getting the disease and its possible effect on your health. The case fatality risk is about 3 to 6%.

12 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About monkeypox.

  2. American Society for Microbiology. What we do and don't know about recent outbreaks.

  3. The Nemours Foundation. Monkeypox.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Monkeypox: clinical recognition.

  5. The World Health Organization. Monkeypox.

  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Signs and symptoms.

  7. World Health Organization. Monkeypox.

  8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Monkeypox: transmission.

  9. Adalja A, Inglesby T. A novel international monkeypox outbreak. Ann Intern Med. Published online May 24, 2022. doi:10.7326/M22-1581

  10. Food and Drug Administration. Jynneos.

  11. Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. Monkeypox.

  12. World Health Organization. Monkeypox.

By Anna Giorgi
Anna Zernone Giorgi is a writer who specializes in health and lifestyle topics. Her experience includes over 25 years of writing on health and wellness-related subjects for consumers and medical professionals, in addition to holding positions in healthcare communications.