What is monkeypox?

Monkeypox is a rare disease caused by a virus that belongs to the same family as smallpox. The first human case of monkeypox was recorded in 1970 in Africa. Typically, cases outside of Africa were linked to international travel or imported animals. 

But since early May 2022, clusters of monkeypox have been reported in multiple countries including the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is tracking this outbreak and investigating possible cases in the U.S. 

Symptoms of monkeypox

Monkeypox usually starts with fever, body aches, malaise, muscle aches and swollen lymph nodes. Within 1 to 3 days (sometimes longer) a rash develops, often beginning on the face then spreading to other parts of the body. Sometimes the rash can appear in the genitals or anus, particularly after intimate sexual contact with someone infected with monkeypox. 

The rash progresses through several stages until it falls off. It usually starts as a flat lesion, then forms a firm nodule that changes into a blister that may contain pus, and finally it scabs over. The illness typically lasts for two to four weeks. Severe cases are rare but can occur, with a reported death rate of three to six percent. 

How is monkeypox transmitted

Human transmission occurs through close contact with lesions, body fluids and respiratory droplets, and through contaminated materials such as clothing or bedding. Monkeypox can spread during intimate contact between people, including during sex, as well as activities like kissing, cuddling, or touching parts of the body with monkeypox sores. 

The incubation period, or the time from infection to symptoms, is usually 7 to 14 days, but it can range from 5 to 21 days. A person is considered infectious from the onset of illness until all lesions have crusted over.

Treating monkeypox

Most individuals with monkeypox have a mild case that usually resolves on its own without requiring any treatment. Currently there is no specific treatment approved for monkeypox infection, but antivirals developed for use in patients with smallpox may be beneficial.

Treatment can be considered in individuals with: 

  • severe disease that requires hospitalization  
  • high risk for severe disease (compromised immune system, pregnant or breastfeeding women, children under eight years of age, presence of other skin conditions or complications)
  • atypical manifestations such as involvement of eye, mouth, or other areas

Preventing monkeypox

There are ways to reduce the spread of monkeypox. 

  • Good hand hygiene. Wash your hands regularly, especially after being in contact with an infected animal or person.
  • Avoid close contact, including sexual contact, with anyone who has symptoms of monkeypox.
  • Avoid touching bedding or materials that have been used by infected animals or humans.
  • Isolate at home and reach out to your healthcare provider immediately if you develop symptoms of monkeypox. 
  • Be aware of any unusual genital rashes that may develop after a sexual encounter, particularly men who have sex with other men, as this may represent a sign of monkeypox. 

Vaccination for individuals at high risk for developing disease after exposure to monkeypox is available through the Rhode Island Department of Health. For more information, visit their website

Francine Touzard-Romo, MD and Gail Jackson, BSN, RN, CIC

Dr. Francine Touzard-Romo is an infectious diseases specialist and director of infection control at Newport Hospital.

Gail Jackson, BSN, RN, CIC is an infection preventionist at Newport Hospital.