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What is Ebola?

Ebola is a virus that causes fever, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, weakness, and sometimes problems with how your blood clots. It used to be 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. 

In 2014 to 2015, a major epidemic of Ebola virus disease occurred in West Africa. Smaller outbreaks have from time to time occurred there since. Ebola has not developed in other areas of the world. But travelers can bring it with them. 

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

Ebola is hard to treat, and often deadly.

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 around days 8 to 10. The first symptoms may seem like 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

  • Decrease urine production

  • Sudden bleeding or bruising

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

  • 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 healthcare providers will ask about your medical history. They will also ask you about potential exposures to Ebola, including 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, 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 of urine is collected. 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?

A number of experimental medicines–alone or in combination–are being used to treat patients with Ebola. Some may be promising. Early diagnosis and supportive care are the mainstay of treatment. They have significantly reduced death rates. 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

  • Medicines to help raise blood pressure that is too low

  • Medicines 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.

The experimental treatments, which are not yet approved by the FDA, 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 so that antibodies made by the recovered person may help the sick person to better fight the infection.

  • Medicines. This includes antiviral and other 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 such as West Africa where people have been sick with Ebola or where 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 you had contact with them

  • Touched blood or body fluids (saliva, sweat, tears, mucus, vomit, feces, breastmilk, 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

How can Ebola be prevented?

There is currently no vaccine available to prevent Ebola. But much research is being done to develop one. Prevention is done by staying away from 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.

Healthcare providers caring for patients with Ebola virus disease routinely wear caps covering their head, a mask shielding their face, and gowns and boots covering their body and shoes. They breathe air only through special respirators.

What to do if you are at risk for Ebola

If you have been exposed to Ebola:

  • Call your healthcare 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, weakness, eye irritation, or changes in vision or severe joint pain 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 during this period. Women should not breastfeed until talking with their healthcare provider. 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 types of the virus.

For more information

To learn more about Ebola, visit the CDC.

Online Medical Reviewer: Barry Zingman MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Lu Cunningham
Date Last Reviewed: 2/1/2019
© 2000-2019 The StayWell Company, LLC. 800 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.