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Smallpox - Topic Overview

How is smallpox spread?

Smallpox is contagious. It can be passed from one person to another through coughing, sneezing, or breathing, or by contact with the scabs or the fluid from blisters. It can even spread from an infected person's personal items and bedding. Smallpox is easiest to spread during the first week of the rash. As scabs form, the person is less contagious. But a person can spread the virus from the time the rash first appears until all scabs have fallen off.

If a terrorist were to release a small amount of the virus into the air, it is possible that it could spread among a large number of people. The virus may be able to survive and infect people for up to a day.

People who get this disease must stay away from others to help prevent it from spreading. If there has been a smallpox outbreak and you think you might have been exposed, call your doctor or local health department. Do not go directly to a health facility, because you could pass the disease to other people.

How is smallpox diagnosed?

If a doctor suspected a case of smallpox, blood and skin tests would be needed to confirm the diagnosis. A confirmed case of smallpox would be considered a worldwide health emergency. In the U.S., state and federal health officials would quickly take action. They would keep anyone who might have been exposed away from others.

If a smallpox outbreak had been confirmed, a doctor in the outbreak area could diagnose smallpox without a lab test. The doctor would look at the rash and ask about symptoms and possible exposure to the disease.

How is it treated?

There is no known cure for smallpox. Treatment includes drinking plenty of fluids and taking medicines to control pain and fever.

To prevent the spread of the virus, an infected person must be kept away from other people until he or she is no longer contagious.

Can smallpox infection be prevented?

People who have survived smallpox cannot get it again.

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