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What Is Ebola?

Ebola is a dangerous virus that can cause people to get very sick and even die. The virus has caused the biggest problems in western Africa. Medical experts all over the world are taking steps to stop Ebola and to treat the people who get sick.

Ebola is also called Ebola hemorrhagic fever because it can cause the body to hemorrhage (bleed). Ebola is very contagious and often life threatening. It causes the body’s immune system to go into overdrive, and that can lead to severe bleeding, organ failure, and death.

When people with Ebola are properly diagnosed, isolated, and cared for, the risk of passing the disease to others is low.

People get Ebola from touching the blood or body fluids of people infected with the disease, or by t

What Happens When Someone Has Ebola?

Ebola often starts with fever and headache, kind of like the flu. But it can get worse and lead to dangerous amounts of bleeding and severe breathing problems.

It’s very important that infected people get treatment right away. People who have Ebola need to be cared for in a special way so that the disease doesn’t spread to doctors, nurses, or others in their families and communities.

How Do People Get It?

Doctors aren’t sure how the first person gets Ebola at the start of an outbreak. They think that people pick up the virus from contact with infected animals. Tropical animals in Africa believed to carry the virus include gorillas, chimpanzees, monkeys, fruit bats, porcupines, and forest antelope.

Ebola spreads through direct contact with body fluids. People can get the virus by handling or touching an infected person’s drops of blood, urine (pee), saliva (spit), or other body fluids. They also can get it through contact with objects that have been contaminated with infected blood or fluids.

Because of this, Ebola can spread quickly within families. It also can spread quickly in treatment centers if caregivers don’t wear surgical gloves, masks, and other protective equipment that covers them from head to toe.

Ebola doesn’t spread through food or water like some viruses do. It also doesn’t travel through the air like cold or flu viruses do.

How Contagious Is It?

With Ebola, a person is contagious after he or she starts to feel sick from the virus. In areas where there is an Ebola outbreak, anyone who isn’t feeling well should get immediate medical help and avoid contact with others.

After people with Ebola start feeling sick, they’re contagious for as long as the virus stays in their blood and body fluids. The virus can stay in the body for weeks after a person feels better — meaning it still can be passed on to someone else. That’s why it’s so important for people who have the virus to stay in medical care and away from other people.

How Do People Know They Have It?

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 to 10 days after exposure.

Early signs of Ebola include:

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

As the disease gets worse, people might:

  • bleed inside and outside the body
  • feel sick and throw up
  • have diarrhea
  • get a skin rash
  • have chest and stomach pain
  • have trouble breathing or swallowing

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

What Do Doctors Do?

To prevent Ebola from spreading, it’s vital to find out quickly if someone has it.

Knowing if an illness is Ebola can be a challenge because early signs of the disease are the same as lots of less serious illnesses. That’s why anyone who gets sick after being someplace where there’s Ebola must be isolated from other people right away. Health care professionals should put on proper protective gear before examining the patient.

Doctors might do tests, like liver function tests or blood tests. Blood tests for Ebola often need to go to a special facility for analysis, so the results might take longer to come back.

Most people who get Ebola need intensive care in an isolation unit at a hospital or other well-equipped medical center. Here’s what hospital medical teams do for people with Ebola:

  • give them lots of fluids to keep them well hydrated
  • keep their oxygen and blood pressure levels steady
  • give patients blood transfusions to replace lost blood
  • treat problems (like seizures or other infections) as they happen

Some experimental treatments for Ebola have been effective when tested on animals, but are not officially approved for use in people.

How Do People Protect Themselves?

There is no vaccine to prevent Ebola, although scientists are working to develop one. It can be hard to prevent the disease since doctors aren’t entirely sure how it infects people at the start of an outbreak.

The best way to guard against Ebola infection is to avoid places that have had outbreaks. People traveling to Africa, particularly West Africa, should check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Ebola website before they leave. This site has details on where Ebola is present to help travelers avoid those regions.

If you are in a place where there’s Ebola, you should:

  • avoid contact with people who are sick
  • avoid contact with anyone who has had Ebola in the past 2 months
  • wash your hands often
  • not touch or eat wild animals (sometimes called “bush meat”)

Ebola is one of the deadliest diseases known. But doctors are learning more about it all the time. Eventually, with more research and a vaccine, Ebola might stop being a threat. Until then, treating people quickly and keeping them in separate health care areas is the best way to stop the spread of the disease.

Reviewed by: Rupal Christine Gupta, MD
Date reviewed: October 2014