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What Is Ebola?

Ebola is a contagious and life-threatening disease caused by a virus. Also called Ebola virus disease, it occasionally causes outbreaks in some African countries. During outbreaks, people can stay safe by staying away from areas where they're happening, avoiding contact with infected people or animals, and getting vaccinated when appropriate.

Ebola (ee-BOE-luh) affects humans and other primates, like monkeys, gorillas, and chimpanzees. It causes the body's immune system to go into overdrive — which can lead to fever, body aches, diarrhea, and sometimes bleeding. It can also lead to organ failure and death. Quick medical treatment is important.

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Ebola?

The first signs of Ebola can appear from 2 to 21 days after someone has been exposed to the virus. Most people's symptoms begin 8–10 days after exposure.

Early symptoms of Ebola include:

  • fever
  • headache
  • joint and muscle aches
  • weakness and tiredness
  • sore throat
  • chills

As the disease progresses, other symptoms can include:

  • bleeding inside and outside of the body
  • nausea and vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • skin rash
  • chest and stomach pain
  • trouble with breathing or swallowing

In its later stages, Ebola can lead to severe bleeding, coma, organ failure, and death.

How Does Ebola Spread?

Doctors aren't always sure how the first person gets Ebola at the start of an outbreak. But they think that people may pick up the virus from contact with the body fluids of infected animals or from eating their undercooked meat. Tropical animals in Africa believed to carry the virus include gorillas, monkeys, fruit bats, porcupines, and forest antelope. There are different strains (or types) of Ebola virus.

Someone with Ebola can pass the virus to others in different ways, mainly through infected body fluids. People can get the virus by handling or touching drops of blood, urine (pee), or other body fluids of someone infected with the disease, or through contact with objects (such as needles) contaminated with infected blood or fluids. A breastfeeding mother with Ebola can pass the virus to her baby through her breast milk. The virus can also spread through semen when a man has sex, even long after he has recovered from the infection. It does not seem to spread through sex from a woman who has been infected.

During an outbreak, Ebola can spread quickly within families and in health centers if caregivers or others don't wear proper protective gear.

Ebola doesn't spread through food or water. It also doesn't travel through the air like cold or flu viruses do. And it is not transmitted by mosquitoes.

How Contagious Is It?

Ebola is contagious, but not as contagious as chickenpox or measles. With Ebola, a person becomes contagious after they start to feel sick with symptoms from the virus. Then, their contagious state lasts for as long as the virus is in their blood and body fluids, even if their symptoms stop. It can take weeks or even months before the person can no longer spread the virus.

How Is Ebola Diagnosed?

An early and accurate diagnosis of Ebola is important to help prevent the spread of the disease. But because early symptoms are similar to those caused by other common diseases, it can be hard to diagnose Ebola quickly.

Someone with Ebola symptoms who has been in an area where it's known to exist needs to be isolated from other people right away. They should be examined by trained health professionals who wear proper protective gear. A blood test can confirm if the person has the Ebola virus.

How Is Ebola Treated?

Most people who get Ebola need intensive care in a hospital or other well-equipped medical center. Treatment involves keeping them well hydrated, maintaining their oxygen and blood pressure levels, replacing lost blood through transfusions, and treating symptoms and problems as they come up. Patients also need to be isolated from the public during treatment to help prevent the disease from spreading.

Some people are given monoclonal antibodies, a medicine that can help treat some types of the Ebola virus.

Can Ebola Be Prevented?

There is a vaccine to prevent Ebola. It is offered to people who have been exposed to the virus or who are at risk for exposure (such as health care workers caring for Ebola patients).

The best way to guard against Ebola infection is to avoid areas with outbreaks. Those traveling to Africa can check the CDC's Ebola website to see if any outbreaks are happening at the time of travel.

Those who must go to an area with Ebola should avoid contact with infected people, wash their hands often, and not touch or eat wild animals (sometimes called "bush meat"). Those working with Ebola patients must wear head-to-toe protective clothing with no skin exposed.

Public health measures focus on isolating and treating people with an Ebola infection. Any needles or other equipment used in their treatment should be disposed of properly. The remains of those who die from the disease must be kept isolated and buried promptly by trained professionals wearing full safety gear.

Ebola is one of the deadliest known diseases. But with early, aggressive treatment and new breakthroughs, doctors are having more success than ever treating it. The new vaccine brings hope that in time, Ebola will go the way of smallpox and other diseases that are no longer a threat.

Medically reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD
Date reviewed: March 2022