What is Ebola?

Ebola is a virus that causes problems with how your blood clots. It is known as a hemorrhagic fever virus. This is because the clotting problems lead to internal bleeding, as blood leaks from small blood vessels in your body. The virus also causes inflammation and tissue damage. Five different species of the virus have been found.

Ebola is spread through direct contact with body fluids of people infected with it. These fluids are blood, saliva, sweat, tears, mucus, vomit, feces, breast milk, urine, and semen. It is also spread by touching things that have been contaminated with these fluids. 

Ebola is hard to treat, and may cause death in an average of about 10 days from the start of symptoms.

What are the symptoms of Ebola?

Symptoms of Ebola can start 2 to 21 days after being infected by the virus. They most often start about 8 to 10 days after being exposed to the virus. The first symptoms are similar to the flu. 

Early symptoms include:

  • Fever

  • Chills

  • Weakness

  • Severe headache

  • Muscle aches

These symptoms show up several days later:

  • Confusion

  • Chest pain

  • Trouble breathing

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • Diarrhea

  • Stomach pain

  • Less urine or no urine

  • Unusual bleeding or bruising

  • Red rash that doesn’t itch or hurt, and may peel after awhile

  • Redness and bleeding from the eyes, nose, mouth, and rectum

Later stages of the illness can cause:

  • Organ failure

  • Inflammation of the brain

  • Seizures

  • Lack of blood flow in the body (shock)

  • Death

How is Ebola diagnosed?

The health care providers will ask about your medical history. They will also ask about when you were exposed to Ebola. They may ask about your recent travel and contact with sick people. 

You will have tests to check for the cause of your symptoms. The symptoms of Ebola can also be caused by other viruses and bacteria. You may have tests such as:

  • Blood tests. Blood is taken from a vein in your arm or hand. This is done to check for certain chemicals that can show if you have an Ebola infection or other illness. Blood tests also check for problems with your blood, and your kidneys, liver, and other organs.

  • Oral swab. A stick with a small piece of cotton at the tip is wiped inside your mouth. This is done to check for viruses and bacteria in your saliva.

  • Urine test. A sample is collected when you urinate. This is done to look for bacteria that may be causing your symptoms.

  • Stool culture. A small sample of stool is collected from your rectum or from a bowel movement. The sample is checked for viruses and bacteria.

  • Sputum culture. A small sample of mucus coughed from the lungs is collected. It is checked for viruses and bacteria.

How is Ebola treated?

Currently no medicine is available to cure Ebola. Treatment for Ebola is done to help support your body while it fights the disease. This is known as supportive care. It includes therapies that help your body during severe illness. Supportive care may include:

  • Fluids given through a vein (IV) to help keep your body hydrated

  • Supplemental oxygen or assisted ventilation to keep enough oxygen in your body

  • Dialysis to help clear waste from the blood

  • Vasopressors to help raise blood pressure that is too low

  • Medications to help your blood clot 

Blood, urine, and other tests may be done regularly. This is to check for chemicals that show how well the organs are working. The tests also look for signs of the virus that continue or go away. Your blood pressure will be checked regularly.

In rare cases, experimental treatment may be used. These are treatments that are not yet proven to work, but may work. They are not approved by the FDA, but may be allowed in some cases. Experimental treatments may include:

  • Convalescent serum. This is the liquid part of blood (serum) taken from a person who is recovering from Ebola. It is then put into the body of a person sick with Ebola.

  • Medications. This includes medicines that act on blood-clotting factors or parts of the Ebola virus.

Who is at risk for Ebola?

If you’ve been to a place where people have been sick with Ebola or animals may carry Ebola, you may be at risk for infection. You are at risk if you:

  • Were in a place where Ebola patients were being treated and had contact with them

  • Touched blood or body fluids (saliva, sweat, tears, mucus, vomit, feces, breast milk, urine, or semen) from a person with Ebola

  • Touched sheets, towels, clothes, personal objects, or other items that had contact with a person with Ebola

Close up view of hands being washed

How can Ebola be prevented?

There is currently no vaccine for Ebola. Prevention is done by avoiding contact with the virus, and taking special care around the virus. To protect yourself:

  • Follow all instructions you are given if you are in an area with Ebola.

  • Wash your hands often, using soap and water. Or, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer often.

  • Don't touch your eyes, nose, or mouth with your hands. If you must, make sure to wash your hands first. 

  • Cover any cuts, scrapes, or other wounds you have.

  • Don’t touch body fluids from a person with Ebola.

  • Don’t touch sheets, clothes, towels, medical supplies, or personal items of a person with Ebola.

What to do if you are at risk for Ebola

If you have been exposed to Ebola:

  • Call your health care provider. He or she can talk with local health staff to see what action may be needed.

  • Keep watch for early symptoms of Ebola for 21 days.

  • Take your temperature every morning and evening. This is to check for fever.

If you have a fever or other Ebola symptoms:

  • Don’t panic. Keep in mind that other illnesses can cause similar symptoms.

  • Call the nearest hospital emergency room. Explain that you have been exposed to Ebola and have symptoms. Do this before going to the hospital. This will help the hospital staff get ready for your arrival.

  • Keep in mind that hospital staff may wear protective equipment, such as masks, gowns, gloves and eye protection. This is to prevent the possible virus from spreading.

  • Follow all instructions the hospital staff gives you.

After recovery from Ebola

After recovering from Ebola, you may have body aches and weakness for weeks or months. Ebola can last in semen for at least 3 months after recovery. A man should use a condom, or not have sex. Women should not breastfeed until talking with their doctor. A person who has recovered from Ebola may be immune for at least 10 years or longer. It is not known if this includes immunity to all species of the virus.

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