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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...

“The key message is to minimize bodily fluid exposures,” Adalja says.

Q. What precautions should people take if they’re concerned they might come in contact with someone infected with Ebola?

A. “Ebola is very hard to catch,” Adalja emphasizes. Infected people are contagious only after symptoms appear, by which time close contacts, such as health care workers and family members, would use “universal precautions.” That's an infection control approach in which all blood and certain body fluids are treated as if they are infectious for diseases that can be borne in them, Adalja says.

Even though the virus can be transmitted by kissing or sex, people with Ebola symptoms are so sick that they’re not typically taking part in those behaviors, he says.

Q. Is there a cure or a vaccine to protect against it?

A. No, but scientists are working on both. The National Institutes of Health is taking part in human testing of an experimental Ebola vaccine, which began in early September. Testing for that vaccine is also taking place in the U.K. and Mali.

The agency expects to have results of that trial by the end of 2014. The NIH is also testing several other potential vaccines.

There is no specific treatment for Ebola. The only treatments available are supportive kinds, such as IV fluids and medications to level out blood pressure, a breathing machine, and transfusions, Adalja says.

ZMapp was given to Brantly and Writebol, among others. But health officials don't know if it aided in their recovery. A trial of ZMapp in 18 Ebola-infected rhesus monkeys prompted recovery in all 18, researchers reported.

Sacra received a different treatment, called TKM-Ebola. He also received a blood transfusion from Brantly, a friend. Health officials don't know if any of these treatments helped with his recovery.

Duncan and Mukpo both received an experimental drug named brincidofovir. The drug is being tested for effectiveness against cytomegalovirus and adenovirus, but test-tube experiments done at the CDC and National Institutes of Health reveal it showed effectiveness against Ebola, according to its manufacturer, Chimerix Inc.

Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on October 06, 2014

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