What is monkeypox?

Samantha Wild
Clinical Lead for Women's Health and Bupa GP
07 July 2022
Next review due July 2025

Monkeypox is a virus that causes a distinctive rash. It’s been common in areas of Central and Western Africa for a long time, where it’s usually spread from infected, wild animals. But there have recently been outbreaks between people in the UK and other countries. Here I’ll answer some of your common questions about monkeypox.

A man holding his head

What are monkeypox symptoms?

A rash is the main, characteristic symptom of monkeypox. But there are often other symptoms too. These usually start between 5 and 21 days after being infected with the virus. They may include:

  • a high temperature
  • muscle aches
  • backache
  • a headache
  • feeling very tired
  • swollen lymph nodes

The rash usually begins within a few days of the symptoms listed above. It most often starts on your face first, and then spreads to other parts of your body. This often includes your hands and feet. The rash starts off as small spots, which turn into fluid-filled blisters. The blisters eventually scab over and fall off.

How do you get monkeypox?

Monkeypox can be spread from person to person through direct, close contact. This includes:

  • direct contact with monkeypox skin blisters or scabs
  • having sex with someone who has monkeypox (this may be due to close physical contact rather than being sexually transmitted)
  • contact with an infected person’s clothing, bedding or towels
  • through coughs and sneezes from an infected person

The good news is that monkeypox doesn’t seem to spread very easily between people. But you should be particularly alert to symptoms if you’ve recently had new, or multiple sexual partners. You should also be watchful if you’ve been in close contact with someone who has been confirmed as having the virus.

You can also get monkeypox from infected animals, including if you eat meat from an infected animal. This is the main way people get monkeypox in Western and Central Africa. But there’s no record of any animals being infected in the UK.

Who gets monkeypox?

It’s possible for anyone to get monkeypox. But the majority of people who have been infected in the UK outbreak so far have been gay or bisexual men. Most cases up until now have been in London, but there have been confirmed cases in all regions of the country.

There were 1,076 confirmed cases of monkeypox in the UK from the beginning of May to the end of June 2022. Before this there have been eight known cases of monkeypox in the UK.

Monkeypox is still far more common in Central and Western Africa. So you’re also more likely to get it if you’ve recently travelled to these areas, or been in contact with someone who has. You’re unlikely to get monkeypox in the UK if you haven’t been in close contact with someone who has it.

What should I do if I have monkeypox symptoms?

If you have a new, unexplained rash, especially on your face or genitals, contact a sexual health clinic, your GP surgery or NHS 111. This is especially important if you’ve been in close contact with someone who has or might have monkeypox in the last three weeks. In the meantime, don’t go out or mix with other people.

The only way to get a diagnosis of monkeypox is to have a test for the virus. Currently, most tests for monkeypox in the UK are being done through sexual health clinics. If you test positive, you will be asked to provide details of close contacts you’ve had in the past three weeks.

How is monkeypox treated?

Monkeypox usually clears up by itself in a few weeks. Most people only have mild symptoms and are able to manage their symptoms at home. If you need to, you can take paracetamol to help with a fever and any aches and pains. A small number of people may need treatment in hospital while they recover.

You’ll need to continue to isolate from other people while you recover. Although it’s not clear if monkeypox is sexually transmitted, it’s advised that you wear a condom for up to eight weeks after you’ve been exposed. Remember that you can still pass it on through direct skin-to-skin contact if you have a rash, spots or blisters.

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Samantha Wild
Dr Samantha Wild
Clinical Lead for Women's Health and Bupa GP

    • Monkeypox. World Health Organization., published 19 May 2022
    • Monkeypox: background information. UK Health Security Agency., last updated 24 June 2022
    • Monkeypox outbreak: epidemiological overview, 28 June 2022. UK Health Security Agency., updated 1 July 2022
    • Monkeypox. BMJ Best Practice., last updated 28 June 2022
    • Monkeypox in the UK. Terrence Higgins Trust., published 23 June 2022
    • UKHSA urges those with new or multiple sexual partners to be vigiland as monkeypox outbreak grows. UK Health Security Agency., published 24 June 2022

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