Even though we’re all still dealing with Covid-19, another contagious infectious disease has emerged: monkeypox. And you’ve probably been hearing a lot about it lately. In July, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared monkeypox a global public health emergency. President Joe Biden recently announced a new monkeypox outbreak response team, and the White House declared the disease a national health emergency. To date, there have been more than 7,000 cases of monkeypox in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
But as monkeypox cases spread, so does misinformation about the disease. That’s likely leaving you with lots of unanswered questions about the virus, including: “How worried should I be about monkeypox?” and “Will monkeypox be the next Covid?”
On the second question, the answer is no. “It’s certainly something that everyone should be aware of,” says Georges Benjamin, M.D., executive director of the American Public Health Association. But, he says, fortunately monkeypox doesn’t have “the explosiveness of Covid,” meaning cases of severe illness and fatalities have been much rarer, and it has so far been far less contagious.
Still, you don’t want monkeypox, which is one reason that it’s crucial to understand how monkeypox is transmitted, the symptoms of the virus and how it can be treated and prevented, Dr. Benjamin says. To help you sort through fact vs. fiction, Good Housekeeping asked medical experts to clear up some of the most common monkeypox myths.
Myth: Monkeypox is a new disease.
Monkeypox was first discovered in 1958, according to the CDC. Two outbreaks of the disease, which is caused by a virus in the same family as the one that causes smallpox, were discovered in monkeys that were being kept for research. The first human case occurred in 1970. Before the 2022 outbreak, most monkeypox cases were reported in central and western African countries or among people who had traveled to countries where the disease was common.
Myth: The only monkeypox symptom is a rash.
A rash is the most common monkeypox symptom that you hear about, and the disease certainly does cause skin lesions, but that’s not the whole story. What does monkeypox do to your body? According to the CDC, symptoms include:
- Muscle aches and backaches
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Sore throat, nasal congestion, or cough
- A pimple- or blister-like rash on or around the genitals, anus, hands, feet, chest, face or mouth that may be itchy or painful. The rash will go through stages, including scabbing and eventually healing.
“Early symptoms are usually similar to the common cold,” says Paulette Grey Riveria, M.D., M.P.H., a family medicine physician with the virtual health platform PlushCare. “Once a rash develops, monkeypox can be spread most easily. A person with a monkeypox rash is most contagious by skin-to-skin contact from the time the rash appears until it crusts or scabs over completely.”
Symptoms usually start within three weeks of being exposed to the virus, and the illness can last two to four weeks, the CDC says. Some people remain symptom-free for the first week or two of infection, and scientists are still trying to understand if a person can spread the virus if they don’t have symptoms. Once someone starts to experience a rash, they’re contagious.
Myth: It’s easy to tell if you have monkeypox.
The monkeypox rash can look different from person to person. “It may initially look like a bug bite and itch like a bug bite,” Dr. Riveria says. But then the rash goes a different route: Bug bites tend to swell at first and then flatten as they heal. A monkeypox rash, however, starts with a flat appearance and becomes raised and filled with fluid — a transition that can take up to a week. It may be itchy and painful, too, but the lesions will eventually scab over and disappear.
“A unique feature of the monkeypox rash is that the sores appear to have a small depression — a portion that appears to dip down in the center — similar to a tiny, depressed belly button,” explains Dr. Riveria. “The sores are also well-circumscribed, meaning that you can most likely trace a smooth circle around the edge; they do not coalesce and blend into each other like some other skin rashes.” The CDC’s website includes several photos of monkeypox rash.
If you’ve been exposed to monkeypox or start to get a rash, contact your doctor or local health department, Dr. Riveria says. Your doctor may take a tissue sample from an open lesion and send it to a lab for testing to confirm a monkeypox diagnosis, according to the WHO. In the meantime, sanitize household surfaces, avoid skin-to-skin contact with others and cover rashes with gloves, long-sleeved shirts and pants.
Myth: Monkeypox is a sexually transmitted infection (STI).
Monkeypox isn’t an STI, Dr. Riveria says. It is, however, spread via “close, personal, often skin-to-skin contact,” where someone has direct contact with a person who has a monkeypox rash, according to the CDC. That may involve sex, but also includes lots of other things. “The best descriptor of monkeypox is that it’s a virus that can be spread by skin-to-skin contact, including the contact that takes place during sex.”
That means if someone has the virus, they can spread it while touching someone else during oral, anal or vaginal sex, yes, but also by simply kissing, hugging or shaking hands. Scientists are still working to understand whether monkeypox can be spread via semen, vaginal fluids, feces or urine, but a pregnant person can spread the virus to their baby.
Myth: Monkeypox is an airborne virus.
Monkeypox is not airborne, Dr. Benjamin says. It’s transmitted through direct, personal contact with a person infected with the virus and who is infectious — such as kissing, shaking hands, having sex or drinking from the same cup.
And monkeypox is one virus that should inspire a lot of hand-washing and disinfecting of countertops. “One of the challenges with this disease is that the virus lives on surfaces pretty easily,” says Dr. Benjamin. The CDC suggests that the virus can possibly live on surfaces for a couple of weeks to a month. So, a person can potentially get monkeypox from touching objects, like a toilet seat, bed linens or clothing used by an infected person.
If you or someone in your household has monkeypox, cleaning and disinfecting surfaces is crucial to prevent the spread. Wash contaminated bedding or clothing in hot water with regular laundry detergent. Dr. Benjamin also recommends wearing gloves when cleaning or caring for someone with the virus (and not touching your face or body with your gloved hands.)
Myth: The monkeypox vaccine is widely available to anyone.
Right now, that’s not the case. There are two vaccines that can prevent monkeypox, but they’re currently in short supply in the U.S., after officials delayed ordering the shots. The government is distributing about 1.1 million doses, though health officials say about 3.5 million are needed to curtail the outbreak. More doses are said to be on the way.
The CDC suggests that anyone who’s been exposed to monkeypox or who’s at a higher risk for getting the virus get vaccinated. High-risk groups include certain health workers and people who’ve had multiple sexual partners in the past two weeks in an area with monkeypox. Getting the vaccine within four days of exposure may prevent symptoms, while getting vaccinated within 14 days may reduce symptoms. To find a vaccine in your area, Dr. Benjamin recommends reaching out to your local health department.
Myth: Monkeypox cannot be treated.
While there’s no cure or targeted treatment for monkeypox, it can be treated with antiviral medications, including TPOXX, which is used to treat smallpox, Dr. Riveria says.
These antiviral medications aren’t readily available, though, Dr. Benjamin says. He suggests contacting your doctor or local health department to find out about the treatments available to you. You can also manage monkeypox symptoms at home with over-the-counter pain relievers, like ibuprofen or acetaminophen, and oatmeal baths, according to Cleveland Clinic. “Monkeypox sores can be painful or otherwise uncomfortable, but severe illness is rare,” adds Dr. Riveria. “Full recovery is likely for most people infected with monkeypox.”
But as with many viruses, people of all ages who are immunocompromised, with conditions like HIV, AIDs, cancer or other diseases, are at a higher risk of getting sicker from monkeypox, according to Dr. Benjamin.
Myth: Monkeypox only affects the LGBTQ+ community.
Anyone can get monkeypox. Right at this moment, the people with the highest risk are men who have sex with men and have multiple sex partners, according to the New England Journal of Medicine, even though monkeypox isn’t an STI, But, Dr. Benjamin stresses, “people should not just assume that this is a disease in the LGBTQ+ community — everyone is at risk. The risk is if you have intimate contact with someone who’s infectious.”
Myth: Monkeypox is likely to cause major havoc, like Covid-19.
That’s doubtful, Dr. Benjamin says. Monkeypox isn’t airborne, doesn’t attack the respiratory system and is rarely fatal. “Even with the increase in monkeypox cases, we are not seeing the percentage of fatalities and severe illnesses that we experienced in the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic,” Dr. Riveria says.
Still, it’s an infectious disease that continues to spread, so you should be aware of what monkeypox looks like, how it’s transmitted and how to avoid getting it. “An aware and prepared community will be best equipped to face what is rapidly developing: an increase in monkeypox cases nationally and worldwide,” says Dr. Riveria.
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