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A Visual Guide to Ebola

What is Ebola?

Ebola is a deadly disease caused by a virus. There are five strains, and four of them can make people sick. After entering the body, it kills cells, making some of them explode. It wrecks the immune system, causes heavy bleeding inside the body, and damages almost every organ. 

The virus is scary, but it’s also rare. You can get it only from direct contact with an infected person’s body fluids.


How do you get it?

You get Ebola from a person who has the virus, and only while he or she has symptoms. People pass it to others through their body fluids. Blood, stool, and vomit are the most infectious, but semen, urine, sweat, tears, and breast milk also carry it.

To get Ebola, you’d have to get these fluids in your mouth, nose, eyes, genitals, or a break in your skin. You could also pick it up from items that have fluids on them, like needles or sheets.

How You Won’t Get Ebola

You can’t get Ebola from casual contact, like sitting next to an infected person. Air, food, and water don’t carry the virus. But kissing or sharing food or a drink with someone who has Ebola could be a risk, since you might get his saliva in your mouth.

What are the symptoms?

It can take from 2 to 21 days, but usually 8 to 10 days, after infection for signs of Ebola to appear. Symptoms can seem like the flu at first -- sudden fever, feeling tired, muscle pains, headache, and sore throat.

As the disease gets worse, it causes vomiting, diarrhea, rash, and bruising or bleeding without an injury, like from the eyes or gums.

Where is Ebola?

There have been 33 Ebola outbreaks since 1976, but the 2014 outbreak in West Africa is by far the largest. The virus has infected thousands of people and killed more than half of them. It started in Guinea and spread to Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Nigeria. A man who traveled to the U.S. from Africa died of Ebola in October. A nurse who helped treat him came down with Ebola. 

Is There a Vaccine for Ebola?

There is no approved medicine or vaccine to treat or prevent Ebola. Scientists have tested some drugs on animals, which seemed to work. But they haven’t studied how the medications affect humans. Researchers are also studying two new vaccines that could prevent Ebola, but they still need to test them in more people to see if they’re safe and if they work.


Since there aren’t any drugs to fight the virus, health care teams treat the person’s symptoms and offer basic support care. They:

  • Keep the person hydrated with fluids through an IV.
  • Give oxygen.
  • Maintain their blood pressure.
  • Treat any other infections they have.

A person’s survival depends on how well his immune system works. The sooner he gets medical care, the better the chances he’ll recover.

After Ebola

Ebola survivors have certain proteins, called antibodies, in their blood that may protect them from the same strain of the virus for 10 years or more. But no one knows if they can get sick from the other strains.

It’s rare, but the Ebola virus can stay in semen for 3 months after a man recovers, so he should avoid sex or use a condom to keep from infecting others. The virus can stay in breast milk for 2 weeks after recovery, so women shouldn’t breastfeed during that time.


How Can I Prevent It?

The best way to avoid Ebola is to stay away from areas where the virus is common. If you are in an outbreak area:

  • Avoid infected people, their body fluids, and the bodies of anyone who has died from the disease.
  • Avoid contact with wild animals, like bats and monkeys, and their meat.
  • Wash your hands often.

After you leave the area, watch for changes in your health for 21 days, and get medical help right away if you have any symptoms. 

Controlling an Outbreak

Trained public health workers find every person who might have had contact with an infected person. They watch each of those people for 21 days. If someone shows signs of Ebola, health care teams test them, treat them, and keep them away from others. Then the workers track down everyone that person came in contact with as well. The goal is to stop Ebola from spreading further.

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Ebola Virus Infection

Ebola is a rare but deadly virus that causes bleeding inside and outside the body.

As the virus spreads through the body, it damages the immune system and organs. Ultimately, it causes levels of blood-clotting cells to drop. This leads to severe, uncontrollable bleeding.

The disease, also known as Ebola hemorrhagic fever or Ebola virus, kills up to 90% of people who are infected.

How Do You Get Ebola?

Ebola isn’t as contagious as more common viruses like colds, influenza, or measles. It spreads to people by contact with the skin or bodily fluids of an infected animal, like a monkey, chimp, or fruit bat. Then it moves from person to person the same way. Those who care for a sick person or bury someone who has died from the disease often get it.

Other ways to get Ebola include touching contaminated needles or surfaces.

You can’t get Ebola from air, water, or food. A person who has Ebola but has no symptoms can’t spread the disease, either.

What Are the Symptoms of Ebola?

Early on, Ebola can feel like the flu or other illnesses. Symptoms show up 2 to 21 days after infection and usually include:

As the disease gets worse, it causes bleeding inside the body, as well as from the eyes, ears, and nose. Some people will vomit or cough up blood, have bloody diarrhea, and get a rash.

How Is Ebola Diagnosed?

Sometimes it's hard to tell if a person has Ebola from the symptoms alone. Doctors may test to rule out other diseases like cholera or malaria.

Tests of blood and tissues also can diagnose Ebola.

If you have Ebola, you’ll be isolated from the public immediately to prevent the spread.

How Is Ebola Treated?

There’s no cure for Ebola, though researchers are working on it. Treatment includes an experimental serum that destroys infected cells.

Doctors manage the symptoms of Ebola with:

Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on October 06, 2014

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