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photo of lab results indicating a positive monkeypox virus test

Should you be concerned about monkeypox?

Monkeypox is a viral infection that causes a rash similar to smallpox, though monkeypox is not as dangerous as smallpox. While monkeypox is relatively rare and mostly found in parts of Africa, the United States and other countries have been dealing with an outbreak since May 2022.

“The reason it’s called monkeypox is because the virus was first discovered in monkeys,” says Saurabh Gulati, M.D., a Piedmont internal medicine physician. “It’s an infection that was transmitted from animals to humans. In the current outbreak, we’re seeing transmission through human to human contact.”

What are the symptoms of monkeypox?

Some people will experience flulike symptoms before a rash, only develop a rash or develop a rash first, followed by flulike symptoms. Symptoms usually occur within three weeks of exposure to the virus.

The early symptoms of monkeypox are similar to those of the flu and include:

  • Fever

  • Fatigue

  • Chills

  • Muscle aches

  • Headache

  • Swollen lymph nodes

  • Cough

  • Sore throat

  • Nasal congestion

A few days after these symptoms begin, a rash with red, flat, painful bumps can develop. The bumps will then turn into blisters and fill with puss. After two to four weeks, the blisters usually form scabs, which fall off.

The rash can develop on or near the:

  • Genitals

  • Anus

  • Mouth

  • Face

  • Hands

  • Feet

  • Chest

How contagious is monkeypox?

“Monkeypox isn’t as contagious as respiratory viruses like COVID-19,” says Dr. Gulati. “It’s mainly transmitted through direct contact with an infected person’s skin, particularly close contact for an extended period of time. If the person has skin lesions, it can be very contagious.”

Is monkeypox dangerous?

Dr. Gulati says monkeypox usually resolves on its own without any specific treatment. Recovery usually takes two to four weeks. However, if you’re immunocompromised or on immunosuppressant medications, your symptoms may be more severe.

He says there have not been any monkeypox-related deaths in the United States so far.

Who is most at risk for monkeypox?

“Anyone can get monkeypox if they’re in close contact with someone who’s infected,” says Dr. Gulati. “In this current outbreak, the most exposure is occurring in men who have sex with men. But there is no specific group that’s inherently at higher risk.”

How to lower your risk of monkeypox

The best way to lower your risk of monkeypox is to avoid exposure to someone who might have it, he says.

If you’re part of a community with higher cases of monkeypox, ask your health care provider about the monkeypox vaccine. The vaccine is given in two doses and your protection will be highest starting two weeks after your second dose. If you’re not fully vaccinated and part of a community with higher rates of infection, here are some ways to reduce your risk of exposure:

  • Temporarily take a break from activities that could expose you to monkeypox, such as kissing or sexual activity.

  • Limit your number of sexual partners.

  • Practice safe sex. Use condoms and dental dams. However, condoms and dental dams may not protect you from all exposure.

  • Clean and disinfect high-traffic surfaces.

  • Frequently wash your hands with soap and water.

What to do if you have monkeypox

“As long as you have an active rash, you can spread monkeypox to others,” says Dr. Gulati.

If you have symptoms or have had close, skin-to-skin contact with a person diagnosed with monkeypox, he says it’s important to:

  • Get tested. Go to urgent care, your primary care provider’s office or a health clinic for testing. “The rash is very similar to some other viruses like chickenpox, herpes and smallpox, so it’s useful to get tested,” he says. Piedmont’s Emergency Departments do not provide routine screening tests for monkeypox. Individuals who are seeking testing are encouraged to find a testing location by visiting the Piedmont Urgent Care by Wellstreet website.

  • Get the monkeypox vaccine if you test positive or are in a community with higher cases of monkeypox.

  • Avoid having any kind of intimate contact with others.

  • Self-isolate at home, away from other people and pets, until your rash is completely healed.

  • Wash your sheets, clothes and linens separately from other people’s laundry.

  • Keep the skin lesions covered with clothing and/or gauze or bandages until the bumps scab over and fall off.

  • Take good care of yourself. Drink plenty of fluids, rest, and use pain relievers or soak in a colloidal oatmeal bath to help relieve symptoms.

If you have questions about your monkeypox risk factors, talk to your primary care provider.

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