Symptoms of Smallpox

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Early symptoms of smallpox are similar to the flu, progressing to a rash a few days later that then turns into deep sores that fill with fluid. These blisters ooze, crust, and scab over, eventually falling off and leaving scars. There is no cure or treatment for smallpox, but thankfully it was eradicated in 1980, meaning that it no longer naturally occurs anywhere in the world.

smallpox symptoms
Illustration by Verywell

Frequent Symptoms

Because it's highly contagious, smallpox can be transmitted by face-to-face contact with infected people. It can also be spread through the air and by having contact with contaminated clothing or bedding.

If a person does become infected with smallpox, there is an incubation period of seven to 19 days before symptoms begin to develop. While it spreads very easily from person to person, the initial symptoms are flu-like and may include:

  • High fever
  • Fatigue
  • A headache​
  • A backache
  • Vomiting

A few days later, flat red sores or spots will begin to appear on your face, hands, and arms, and eventually on the trunk of your body. Within a few days, many of the sores will begin to turn into small blisters filled with fluid. The fluid will then turn into pus. Over time, the sores will scab and fall off, leaving deep, pitted scars.

Complications

If you're pregnant or have a suppressed immune system, getting smallpox can be more serious and potentially fatal. In the past, roughly one in three people who contracted smallpox died. Recovering from smallpox also left many people with permanent scars and sometimes even some disfigurement from losing nasal or facial tissue. Because sores often form on and around the eyes, eye infections and other eye complications occurred. Less commonly, people went blind.

While the vaccination against smallpox is extremely effective for the disease's prevention, it's associated with known side effects that range from mild effects like soreness and slight fever to serious side effects like an infection in your heart or brain. These potentially serious side effects are why the general population isn't routinely vaccinated anymore. In the event that a smallpox outbreak or epidemic should occur, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does have enough vaccine available to inoculate every person in the United States.

When to See a Doctor

No one has had smallpox in the United States since 1949, and no one in the world has had it since 1978, so if people were to contract it now it would either be due to the use of the variola virus as a biological weapon or from exposure to the virus in the environment. For instance, in Siberia, Russia, global warming is causing many areas that were previously frozen to melt, potentially exposing graveyards with corpses containing the variola virus.

It would be difficult to know you have smallpox until the rash forms and you start developing deep fluid-filled sores since the early symptoms are similar to that of the flu. If you develop any suspicious rash, no matter what you think it is, you should see your doctor. If your doctor suspects smallpox, you would be isolated to prevent spread and your doctor would work with the CDC to diagnose and treat you. This would also signal a public health emergency for which the CDC is ready to enact a plan to respond to an outbreak or a bioterrorism threat.

Smallpox: Causes and Risk Factors
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