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What is monkeypox?

Doctor administering monkeypox vaccine
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Monkeypox is a rare viral infection that is mainly found in regions of West or Central Africa.

Monkeypox was first identified in humans in 1970 when a 9-month-old boy in the Democratic Republic of Congo was found to have the infection. Since then, it has mainly been seen in African countries but in 2022, it has been detected in non-endemic locations including parts of mainland Europe, the USA, and the UK.

Read on to find out more about the symptoms of monkeypox, how it is transmitted and ways to prevent contracting the virus.

Monkeypox symptoms

Monkeypox symptoms are common to those of smallpox but are usually milder. Symptoms of monkeypox include:

  • A rash with blisters which appears on the face, hands, feet, mouth, eyes, genitals, and/or perianal area
  • Headache
  • Backache
  • Muscle aches
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Fatigue

Common skin rashes and infections to be aware of

A skin rash can be caused by a range of other infections aside from monkeypox. Some more common skin rashes can be treated at home with over-the-counter remedies such as antiseptic cream so it’s important to accurately identify symptoms.

Infection Description  Common signs
Chickenpox Chickenpox is a highly contagious infection caused by the varicella-zoster virus. It usually affects children, but anyone can get it. It is characterised by an itchy, spotty rash that can occur anywhere on the body. It starts as small spots that then blister before scabbing over. Other symptoms include a high temperature, aches and a loss of appetite.
Scabies Scabies is a contagious skin condition caused by a small burrowing mite called Sarcoptes scabiei. The main symptom of scabies is itchy, thin burrow tracks on the skin, consisting of tiny blisters. They usually appear between folds of skin such as between the fingers and the inner elbows.
Bedbugs Bedbugs, which are small insects about the size of an apple seed, can bite the skin and cause a reaction in some people. Bedbug bites are often red and itchy. They usually appear in a line or a cluster on exposed areas of the skin such as the face, neck, or arms.
Insect bites and stings Some insects bite or sting and this can cause a red, itchy, and sometimes painful lump on the skin, although it usually clears up in a few hours or days. Some people have an allergic reaction to insect bites or stings which can cause hives. Hives can appear as raised, red patches on the skin and may cause itching or stinging. Some may develop into blisters.

 

How is monkeypox transmitted?

There are a few different ways that monkeypox can be spread. One of the main ways it is transmitted to humans is through close contact with an infected animal, such as a rodent or primate. This includes being bitten or touching the body fluids, spots, blisters, scabs, fur or hide of an infected animal. It may also be contracted by eating the meat of an infected animal that has not been cooked thoroughly.

It can also be contracted from an infected person by touching their blisters or scabs or from coughs and sneezes.

Touching a contaminated material such as towels, bedding or clothing can also cause monkeypox to spread from one person to another.

How harmful is monkeypox virus?

Monkeypox is usually mild and clears up in 2-4 weeks. In recent years, it has had a fatality rate of 3-6%, but for the strain seen in the UK, the West African Clade, there is a 1% mortality rate.

Extreme cases of monkeypox are more commonly seen in children and those with existing health conditions or immune deficiencies.

Monkeypox can cause further complications including:

  • Sepsis
  • Encephalitis
  • Bronchopneumonia
  • Corneal infection, with loss of eyesight
  • Bacterial superinfection
  • Permanent skin scarring
  • Hyperpigmentation/hypopigmentation

Monkeypox treatment

There are no specific treatments for monkeypox, and most people will recover from the virus in a couple of weeks without treatment. However, if your symptoms are severe or you are at a higher risk of developing secondary complications, you may be admitted to hospital.

Your healthcare provider may help relieve symptoms using pain medication and ensuring you stay hydrated. You may also be given treatment if your vision has been affected.

Is there a vaccine for monkeypox?

There isn’t a vaccine specifically for monkeypox. However, as it is caused by a virus that is like smallpox, vaccines for smallpox are deemed effective for both preventing monkeypox and reducing its severity.

How to prevent monkeypox?

Although monkeypox is rare, there are ways you reduce the likelihood of contracting it or spreading it:

  • Wash your hands with soap regularly
  • Use hand sanitiser in situations where you can’t wash your hands
  • Wear a mask that covers your mouth and nose when around others
  • Clean and disinfect regularly-used surfaces such as kitchen sides, the toilet, and sinks
  • Avoid contact with infected animals, people, and materials
  • Practice safe sex and avoid contact with anyone who has a rash or blisters on their genitals or perianal area
  • If you have monkeypox, isolate yourself from others, including those in your household

What should I do if I think I have monkeypox?

If you have concerns that you may have monkeypox as you have been in contact with someone who has monkeypox or you are exhibiting symptoms, stay at home and seek help from medical professionals.

  • If you have a fever: Contact your GP. If they are unavailable or your fever worsens, call 111.
  • If you have a genital rash or blisters: Contact your local sexual health clinic.
  • If you have trouble breathing or experience severe symptoms: Call 999 or go to your nearest Emergency Department, ensuring you wear a mask at all times.

In summary, monkeypox is a rare viral infection that spreads through contact with infected animals and people or contaminated materials. It presents as a rash with blisters and can cause other symptoms such as headaches and fever. It is usually not life-threatening and will go away without treatment within a few weeks, however, you can treat the symptoms with pain relief and flu remedies. To prevent contracting monkeypox, you should avoid infected animals and people, wear appropriate PPE and wash your hands regularly.

If you want to find out more about conditions that affect the skin, why not take a look at our skin conditions sections? For example, you can learn more about how to treat warts and verrucas or find out about the symptoms and causes of eczema. Also check out our sexual health sections for advice on STIs and contraception.

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References

www.nhs.uk/conditions/monkeypox
www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/monkeypox www.who.int/emergencies/disease-outbreak-news/item/2022-DON393 
www.cdc.gov/poxvirus/monkeypox/symptoms.html www.nhs.uk/conditions/chickenpox
www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/scabies/symptoms-causes/syc-20377378
www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK574519
www.uclh.nhs.uk/news/guidance-patients-suspected-monkeypox