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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.

Treatment

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.

Ebola Virus Infection FAQ

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Ebola Outbreak Unfolds in Africa continued...

Q. How deadly is Ebola?

A. The Ebola strain in the current outbreak is the most lethal of the five known strains of the virus. It is called Ebola Zaire and usually kills up to 9 out of 10 infected people. But the high death rate might be due to a lack of modern medical care, Adalja says. “It’s hard to say exactly what the [death] rate would be in a modern hospital with all of its intensive care units.”

The CDC said in July the Ebola death rate in the West African outbreak is about 6 in 10, rather than 9 in 10. That shows that early treatment efforts have been effective, says Stephan Monroe, deputy director of the National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases at the CDC.

On July 31, the CDC issued a travel advisory recommending against non-essential travel to Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.

Q. What are the symptoms?

A. At first, the symptoms are like a bad case of the fluhigh fever, muscle aches, headache, sore throat, and weakness. They are followed quickly by vomitingdiarrhea, and internal and external bleeding, which can spread the virus. The kidneys and liver begin to fail.

Ebola Zaire kills people quickly, typically 7 to 14 days after symptoms appear, Adalja says.

A person can have the virus but not show any symptoms for as long as 3 weeks, he says. People who survive can still have the virus in their system for weeks afterward.

The virus has been detected in semen up to 7 weeks after recovery, according to the WHO. But this is very rare, says Thomas Geisbert, PhD, a professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of Texas Medical Branch. Geisbert has been studying the Ebola virus since 1988.

Q. How does the virus spread?

A. Ebola isn’t as contagious as more common viruses, such as colds, influenza, or measles, Adalja says. It spreads to people by close contact with skin and bodily fluids from infected animals, such as fruit bats and monkeys. Then it spreads from person to person the same way.

Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on October 06, 2014

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