Infectious diseases expert Dr. John Zurlo breaks down what you need to know about monkeypox and how to protect yourself from getting sick.
The World Health Organization (WHO) recently declared the monkeypox outbreak a public health emergency of international concern. While we’re still in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic, it might make you uneasy to hear about the spread of another infectious disease. But monkeypox is quite different from COVID-19.
To help calm our nerves, Dr. John Zurlo, infectious diseases specialist, answers some of our most frequently asked questions about monkeypox.
What exactly is monkeypox?
Monkeypox is a viral infection that has some similarities to smallpox—it can cause a feverish illness and skin lesions, also known as pox. One of the major differences is that it can be spread from animals, which is why it’s harder to eradicate, unlike smallpox which only infected humans and was eliminated several decades ago. Monkeypox can infect certain types of rodents, and humans are susceptible hosts.
@jeffersonhealth Monkeypox is now a public health emergency. Protect yourself by avoiding close contact with those who have lesions and consult your doctor if you believe you have it. #monkeypox #pox #healthcare #disease #monkeypoxvirus #monkeypoxsymptoms ♬ Lofi Vibes – Gentle State
What are the symptoms of monkeypox?
Often, but not always, those infected with monkeypox develop a fever first, which then leads to the development of a rash. The very typical skin lesions look like well-circumscribed pustules, but they can take on different forms during their evolution. They may start out by looking flat and red, changing to a bump with clear fluid, then developing pus and eventually opening up and becoming shallow ulcers, which can be quite painful.
It’s important to note that you might not be covered in these lesions if you contract monkeypox—it could just be one or a few. In some cases, they may show up on genitals and be confused with a sexually transmitted infection, or they could appear without being accompanied by a fever, so you can only be diagnosed by a healthcare professional.
Is monkeypox deadly?
We haven’t seen many deaths with the current outbreak—those who are most at risk for serious illness, like infection of the lungs or other organs in the body, are individuals who are immunosuppressed. Pregnant people, young children and those with underlying skin conditions who contract monkeypox also have a higher chance of serious illness.
How is monkeypox treated?
The vast majority of people who get monkeypox won’t need treatment or hospitalization. Those who are considered high-risk may be treated with tecovirimat, or TPOXX, an antiviral medication that has been approved to treat smallpox. Taking this medication early during the course of infection may reduce the severity of lesions and serious illness.
How do you get monkeypox?
Right now, we’re seeing that most people are infected through direct, prolonged contact with a skin lesion that contains a high amount of the virus. In some cases, it could be transmitted through sexual contact, if someone has sores around the genital area. There is also concern that, during the early stages of the virus when people have a fever, the virus could be spread through droplets during a cough or sneeze, much like a respiratory virus. But the vast majority of cases are spread through direct contact.
Is it safe to try on clothing in stores and sit on seats on public transportation, including buses, trains and airplanes?
Transmission may occur after having prolonged contact with sheets that someone with monkeypox has been sleeping on. So far, monkeypox hasn’t proven to be particularly contagious, so it’s doubtful that it would penetrate into intact skin when touching clothing in a store or a seat on an airplane. If you come into contact with the virus and then touch your face, or you have an open sore on your body, you might contract monkeypox. But if you’re taking normal health precautions—washing your hands regularly, staying home when you’re sick, etc.—there’s a very low risk that you will get the virus.
Does the smallpox vaccine protect against monkeypox?
If it does, it’s certainly not perfect. We have seen monkeypox in people who are of an age that they would have gotten vaccinated against smallpox. So if you received the smallpox vaccine, you should still take precautions to stay healthy.
Who should get vaccinated against monkeypox?
We can offer vaccines to those in certain risk groups. Monkeypox has been prevalent among gay men. If you fall into this category, specifically, and you know anyone in your social circle who has the virus, you should get vaccinated. If you’re interested in getting vaccinated, contact the Philadelphia Department of Health or your local health department to find locations where the vaccine is available.
What should I do if I’m exposed to monkeypox?
First, you should visit your doctor, especially if you start to experience symptoms such as a fever or notice sores on your body. Symptoms can last from a few days to a few weeks—the skin lesions may be painful or debilitating, but the prognosis is generally good. If you’re diagnosed with monkeypox, stay home from work or school, be sure to keep a distance from others, keep skin lesions covered and wash your sheets and blankets at home frequently.