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What is monkeypox?

David W. Kimberlin, MD, FAAP

Answer

The United States is among several countries where cases of monkeypox infections have been reported. The virus causes a rash that looks like chickenpox (varicella).

Monkeypox is most common in West African and Central African countries. Infections are rare in our country, and health experts say the virus poses very low risk to the American public.

How does a person get monkeypox?

Monkeypox got its name after the disease was discovered in colonies of monkeys kept for research in the 1950s. It was first discovered in a person in 1970.

People can spread monkeypox to other people through direct skin to skin contact with infected body fluids or when sharing bedding, clothing or towels. It can also spread forthrough large respiratory droplets from infected people, but is much more difficult to transmit through this route than COVID is.

Cases mainly are reported in people who travel to central or west African countries and in people who have close or intimate contact with someone who is infected. Children under age 8 years, pregnant women and some people with immune conditions may be at higher risk of severe disease if they are in close direct contact with an infected person, or come in contact with clothes, bedding, etc., from someone with the rash of monkeypox.

Symptoms of monkeypox

The telltale sign of monkeypox virus is how the rash looks and how the spots change over time. When the rash first appears, it looks like flat spots. All the spots change at the same time. They become raised bumps and then fluid-filled blisters that become pus-filled white/yellow sores. A person is contagious from the time symptoms develop until after scabs from the rash fall off. Before the rash appears, early signs may include:

  • fever

  • headache

  • sore throat

  • cough

  • swollen lymph nodes

If your pediatrician suspects monkeypox, they will take a skin swab and do a lab test. Most people recover in two to four weeks even without medicines that kill the virus causing monkeypox. There are also antiviral treatments.

In the past, there have been very few outbreaks of monkeypox in the United States. In 2003, for example, an outbreak occurred in children and adults who had contact with infected animals that were imported from another country.

Is there a monkeypox vaccine?

Because monkeypox is so rare, there is no need to vaccinate everyone. Two vaccines are available for people age 18 years or older who may have been exposed to someone with monkeypox. The vaccine also may be given to people who work in a laboratory with the virus or provide medical care to infected patients.

Should my family worry about monkeypox?

Monkeypox sounds scary, but it is very, very unlikely that it will ever cause you any problems. It is much more difficult to transmit or acquire than COVID is. It is always good to be aware of health risks, but this is not one that should occupy much concern for you.

More information

  • Monkeypox in the United States (CDC)


David W. Kimberlin, MD, FAAP

​David W. Kimberlin, MD, FAAP, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, is the editor of the Red Book, the authoritative source for pediatric infectious diseases from American Academy of Pediatrics. ​​

Last Updated
6/3/2022
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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