We have completed maintenance on DiscoverMagazine.com and action may be required on your account. Learn More

What Is Monkeypox and Should we Still be Worried About this Virus?

After COVID, everyone braced for the mpox virus to become the next pandemic. How dangerous is monkeypox, and is it still a health emergency?

By Stephen C. GeorgeMar 5, 2024 1:00 PM
Monkeypox new disease dangerous over the world. Patient with Monkey Pox. Painful rash, red spots blisters on the hand. Close up rash, human hands with Health problem. Banner, copy space. Dengue fever
(Credit: Marina Demidiuk/Shutterstock)


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

One pandemic was bad enough. But in the summer of 2022, just as people were getting over the shared fear and trauma of the COVID global outbreak, world health officials declared a new public health emergency, thanks to the spread of the so-called monkeypox virus.

It’s fair to say that a lot of people went ape over the news. What the heck was monkeypox? Was it anything like chickenpox … or worse, smallpox? Was this the start of another pandemic? Just how deadly was this new viral threat?

Luckily for all of us, the answers to many of those questions were no. Monkeypox was not the new COVID, nor was it actually all that new to medical science. But even though it’s not a death sentence to most people who get it, monkeypox is still a serious virus worth knowing more about.

What Is Monkeypox?

(Credit: Dotted Yeti/Shutterstock)

First, monkeypox — or mpox, to use the preferred term of medical experts — is part of the same family that also includes the dreaded smallpox virus. Researchers have identified a couple of different types of the mpox virus, known as clades. While none of the known mpox clades are as dangerous as smallpox, the virus does produce similar — and similarly uncomfortable — symptoms.

Incidentally, despite the name, monkeypox is not related to chickenpox. According to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, the only real similarities between the two viruses are that they have “pox” in their names. Chickenpox is part of the herpes family of viruses and is far more contagious. Monkeypox, meanwhile, is part of the variola family. But despite its lower mortality rate compared to smallpox, you still wouldn’t want to be infected with it. 

Where Did Monkeypox Come From?

When the World Health Organization declared mpox a public health emergency, it was the first that most Americans had ever heard of the virus. (The public health emergency status has since been rescinded.) But in fact, scientists have known about and studied this particular virus for decades. It was first discovered in 1958 among a population of research monkeys in Denmark.

Read More: What You Need to Know About Alaskapox.

By the early 1970s, the virus, which by then was known to infect small mammals besides monkeys, had spread to humans as well. For decades, mpox has been considered endemic to people in Central and West Africa, but rarely spread beyond those regions.

That changed by the fall of 2022, when the disease was documented as spreading to more than 80 other countries outside of Africa. By then, cases had also been reported in all 50 U.S. states. It’s still not clear what caused the virus to spread so suddenly from its usual confines.

What Are the First Signs of Monkeypox?

(Credit: Pro_Vector/Shutterstock)

However it spreads, the symptoms of mpox are unmistakable. According to the World Health Organization, those symptoms include: 

  • Fever

  • Sore Throat

  • Headache

  • Muscle Aches

  • Back Pain

  • Low Energy

  • Swollen Lymph Nodes

But in addition to these flulike symptoms, one of the telltale signs of mpox infection is the development of a skin rash. For many people, this can be the first sign that they have the virus.

What Does Monkeypox Look Like?

(Credit: Marina Demidiuk/Shutterstock)

The mpox rash often begins with flat spots that soon become lesions or pustules — these resemble small pimples or blisters, surrounded by reddened skin. While some people may only get a few bumps, many sufferers end up with hundreds. Typically, the rash shows up on the face, hands, and feet. The lesions can also appear around or inside the mouth, or near the genitals. Eventually the sores will crust over and form scabs, which finally fall off. 

Does Monkeypox Itch?

Sufferers report that the rash caused by mpox can be extremely painful and very itchy. That said, people should resist scratching the rash as this can not only help spread the disease but could also cause more serious skin infections and possibly lead to permanent scarring.

How Long Does Monkeypox Last?

From the time someone first notices symptoms until the last pustules scab over and fall off, an mpox infection can take anywhere from two weeks to a month to run its course.

How Do You Get Monkeypox?

The mpox virus is considered contagious, although not nearly as contagious as some other viruses, such as chickenpox, measles, or even the flu. Mpox mainly spreads via close contact with an infectious person. And by “close contact,” we mean mouth-to-mouth, skin-to-skin, or mouth-to-skin contact. This also includes sexual contact; in fact, according to WHO data, the 2022 outbreak was spread mainly by sexual contact.

In some cases, close face-to-face interaction, such as talking or breathing very close to another person, can spread the disease. Bites and scratches from an infected animal can transmit the virus, too. Touching objects or surfaces (including clothing and bed linens) that an infected person has recently touched can also lead to infection, although it’s not common. Pregnant women may also pass the virus on to their unborn baby.

 Read More: What We Know About the Monkeypox Outbreak in Europe

Nevertheless, experts recommend that sufferers isolate themselves from others and take care to wash their hands before and after touching any skin where lesions are present. If you can’t avoid contact with someone, experts recommend keeping affected skin covered (with clothing or bandages) when you’re in the presence of others.

Is Monkeypox Deadly?

While people with mpox can become very sick — the most serious complications include heart problems and swelling of the brain — the virus is usually not fatal. Current estimates put the overall mortality rate at anywhere from 0.1 to 10 percent, depending on which clade is involved. (For comparison, the mortality rate for smallpox is around 30 percent.)

How to Treat Monkeypox

(Credit: Nagy-Bagoly Arpad/Shutterstock)

While medical experts have developed vaccines that are effective against mpox, those are preventive measures that won’t do you much good if you’re already infected with the virus. Research suggests that some antiviral medications used to treat smallpox or other viruses may be useful, but currently there is no specific FDA-approved antiviral treatment for mpox.

For most patients, the best (if least satisfying) strategy is to let the virus run its course and resolve on its own, as it generally will in two to four weeks (you’re no longer considered infectious once the last scabs have fallen from the lesions and new skin has grown back underneath). Just as if you had some more common virus, like the flu, doctors recommend getting plenty of rest and staying well-hydrated. Over-the-counter cold medications and pain relievers can help ease many of the symptoms associated with mpox.

To ease the discomfort of the rash, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend taking an oral antihistamine (such as Benadryl) or applying topical treatments such as benzocaine, lidocaine, or calamine lotion. Talk to your doctor to determine which treatment is best for you.

Read More: A History of Smallpox Disease and Why It Relates to Monkeypox.

Article Sources

Our writers at Discovermagazine.com use peer-reviewed studies and high quality sources for our articles, and our editors review for scientific accuracy and editorial standards. Review the sources used below for this article:

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!


Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 70% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2024 Kalmbach Media Co.