If you have been living in the world of 24-hour news and Twitter, you have most likely heard of monkeypox. The name looks pretty scary and you might be feeling pretty scared. Is it fun? No. But according to the World Health Organization (WHO), severe cases are extremely rare.
Monkeypox was discovered in African monkeys in 1958. The first human case was documented in 1970. As the name suggests, monkeypox first spread from monkeys to humans, and only recently has human-to-human transmission become more commonplace. Symptoms start up to three weeks after exposure to the virus and can last 2-4 weeks. They can include fever, chills, swollen lymph nodes, fatigue, muscle aches and respiratory symptoms. Some people only experience the rash, which is uncomfortable and itchy.
Even though the virus isn't very dangerous, it doesn't sound like any fun at all! So how can you prevent monkeypox?
How Does Monkeypox Spread?
To know how to give yourself the best monkeypox virus protection, you should first know how it spreads. In a nutshell, the monkeypox virus is spread either from animal to person or from person to person through either respiratory droplets or fomites.
Fomites are objects that pick up viruses like hitchhikers. The virus leaves the body through saliva, for example, and ends up on a doorknob, pillowcase, or the sleeve of your kid's shirt. That object covered in virus is now called a fomite. The monkeypox virus in particular is very stable on fomites and can wait patiently for up to 15 days to get picked up by a different host. Once they reach that person's mouth, eye or nose, they can get to work in their new home.
Animal to Person
Monkeypox can spread to humans from animals (most often rats or monkeys) through broken skin. If an infected rat or monkey bites you, the virus can enter your bloodstream through that bite. If you work in a pet store or a zoo, you could be at higher risk of contact with the animal's bodily fluids. If you work in an environment in which you interact with these animals, take extra precautions.
Person to Person
People can infect other people through contact with sores, scabs, oral secretions, and sexual activity. Medical providers and caregivers are at an especially high risk of contracting the virus because of their increased exposure to potentially-infected patients. The virus can hitch a ride on large respiratory droplets, which is why spending extended time with someone increases the chance that a rogue cough or overly-pronounced 'K' could lead to infection.
The CDC says, "A person is considered infectious from the onset of symptoms and is presumed to remain infectious until lesions have crusted, those crusts have separated, and a fresh layer of healthy skin has formed underneath." Once the scabs have new skin underneath, that person is no longer infectious.
How to Protect Yourself from Monkeypox
In general, monkeypox prevention looks a lot like Covid prevention. Once again, hand hygiene plays a huge role, and vaccination and masking can also serve as effective tools against the virus.
Wash Your Hands
Handwashing can be done with hot or cold water. Make sure to scrub between each finger, swipe under each fingernail and lather up the backs of your hands as well as the palms. Some frequently missed spots are the very center of the palm and the spot between the thumb and first finger, so make sure you pay attention to those areas. You can rinse after 20 seconds. Find a tune you can hum to make the time go by. Who knew 20 seconds could feel like an eternity?
Use Hand Sanitizer Liberally
Hand sanitizer works great when handwashing isn't an option. Many hospitals have a 'foam in, foam out' policy when entering and leaving patient rooms. This might be a helpful mantra as you go about your day. Keep bottles everywhere: your car, your kitchen, your desk. Some good hand sanitizing opportunities include:
- Anytime you have touched a door handle or other heavily-touched item
- Leaving or entering a store
- When you leave or return to your desk at work
- When your food comes to the table at a restaurant
The CDC currently does not recommend universal masking to fight monkeypox, but as it can be spread through respiratory droplets, masks can still prove useful. Because the virus travels only on larger droplets, paper surgical masks are effective in preventing those infected from spreading it to others close by. That said, most cases of monkeypox have been transmitted through prolonged periods of close contact, and the virus does not linger in the air.
Just Say No to Rashes
When you think of monkeypox, you likely picture the large, red, blister-like rash normally associated with infection. The rash consists of anywhere from one or two to 120 large bumps on the skin. These bumps start out flat and red and over several days begin to resemble small blisters. People report the rash as painful at the start, then itchy once they turn to blisters and then scabs.
In prior outbreaks, the rash usually began on the face and spread from there. In this most recent outbreak, however, the rash most often starts in the genital area and is sometimes mistaken for herpes.
If you see a rash on someone you live or work with, or the guy hitting on you at the bar, try not to have physical contact with them or to share their breathing space any longer than you have to. If it's a child or loved one and you cannot prevent all contact, try to keep touching to a minimum (go ahead and laugh parents) and practice good hand hygiene.
No vaccine currently exists for monkeypox. However, the vaccine for its close cousin, smallpox, lowers the risk of transmission by 85%. The most commonly used vaccines at this time are the JYNNEOS and ACAM2000. A newer vaccine called the Aventis Pasteur Smallpox Vaccine (APSV) has limited availability under investigative protocol, which means it needs more testing to receive full approval for wide use.
What to Do if Someone in Your House Has Monkeypox
You can easily catch monkeypox from infected family members because of shared living space. Completely quarantining that person may feel extremely daunting, but taking some simple steps can minimize your exposure.
- Avoid handling food and clothes the infected person has worn or used (fomites!).
- Isolate infected family members if possible.
- Keep separate all eating utensils, towels, or any household items used by the infected person. Use paper plates and plastic utensils and replace all of your hand towels with paper towels.
- Thoroughly wash your hands after touching possible fomites.
- Wear a mask at your discretion.
After three years of pandemic life, everyone was looking forward to some normalcy. Unfortunately, along came monkeypox. Fortunately, however, monkeypox is mostly treated by letting it run its course. Symptom management can help make you more comfortable.
For people with conditions like autoimmune disorders or pregnancy, sometimes antiviral medications can be called in for backup. Your doctor will most likely tell you to rest at home, drink plenty of fluids, take over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications like Advil or Aleve and let your body do all the work.