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Is Monkeypox a Risk for Kids? Here's What You Need to Know

by Vannessa Rhoades 03 Oct 2023
Is Monkeypox a Risk for Kids? Here's What You Need to Know

Mpox, also known as monkeypox, is an uncommon viral disease that primarily affects animals but can occasionally spread to humans, causing outbreaks with various levels of severity. While monkeypox is generally rare and not as widely known as some other infectious diseases, understanding its symptoms, especially in children, is essential for early detection and effective management. Let’s take a look at the symptoms of monkeypox in kids and learn the signs that parents and caregivers should be vigilant about.

What Monkeypox Is

Mpox was formerly (and often still is) referred to as monkeypox. The disease was so named after it was discovered in colonies of monkeys kept for research in the 1950s. Mpox was first discovered in humans in 1970. The mpox virus is similar to the variola virus, responsible for smallpox. The disease is believed to be transmitted to humans from animals, often through close contact with infected rodents or other small mammals. Human-to-human transmission can occur, but it is generally less efficient than animal-to-human transmission. Babies, very young children (less than a year old), and children with eczema or weakened immune systems might have a higher chance of getting seriously sick if they catch mpox.

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How Someone Can Get Monkey Pox

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), children and teenagers can get infected with the mpox virus by being near people or animals that have mpox or by touching things that have the virus on them. This can happen when they have close contact with someone, like hugging, sharing a bedding or towels, or when they come in contact with body fluids or items contaminated with the virus. Sometimes, babies can get infected by their moms during pregnancy or childbirth, and people can also get infected through sexual contact.

In the past, there have been cases of mpox in kids and teenagers in different African countries, and sometimes outbreaks have happened when people travel from those countries or bring animals from Africa. In 2003, there was an outbreak in the United States because of pet prairie dogs.

During the most recent outbreak of mpox in the U.S., there weren’t many cases in children and teenagers (only 0.3% of all cases reported until September 24th, 2022). A report from November 3rd, 2022 showed about 83 cases of kids and teenagers becoming infected. Out of these, 16 cases were in kids under 5 years old, 12 cases were in kids aged 5 to 12 years, and 55 cases were in teenagers aged 13 to 17 years. Most of the teenagers (89%) were boys. For kids under 12 years old, the most common way they got exposed to mpox was by being physically close to an adult family member who had mpox. For older teens, the most common way they got exposed was through sexual contact with another boy.

Monkeypox Symptoms in Kids

The symptoms of monkeypox in children are similar to those observed in adults, but they can be more pronounced due to the developing immune systems of young individuals. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the main sign of the mpox virus is the rash and how it changes. At first, the rash looks like flat spots. Normally, all the spots change together, becoming raised bumps, then fluid-filled blisters, and finally pus-filled white or yellow sores. This rash can be quite uncomfortable and itchy for children. During the most recent outbreak, some patients have had different patterns, with lesions at various stages on one part of the body. 

In the past, when kids got mpox infections, the rash usually came with a fever, chills, sweats, swollen lymph nodes, sore throat, headache, or muscle aches. But in the current outbreak, the CDC reports that not all patients have had fever and swollen lymph nodes. Other symptoms might include feeling tired and having a headache. If there are sores in the throat, it could be hard to swallow or cause coughing. Sometimes, if there are sores near the eyes, they might swell or get crusted if a person touches them with their hands.

The rash from mpox might look like rashes from other illnesses that kids often get, like chickenpox, shingles, hand-foot-and-mouth disease, measles, and others. Sometimes, kids can have more than one infection at the same time. If the symptoms don't seem like mpox or there's no link to someone with mpox, your pediatrician will probably check for other causes.

Is Monkeypox a Risk for Kids? Here's What You Need to Know

How Monkeypox Is Diagnosed

If a child has a rash that looks concerning, your pediatrician may consider testing them. This is especially important if they've been close to someone who's been confirmed or likely to have monkeypox, or if they've traveled to places where the virus is a risk. Testing can be done through state health authorities or some private labs. Rules for collecting and sending samples might vary by lab, so doctors should make sure they know the right way to do it before taking a sample from the rash.

How Monkeypox Is Treated

Mpox stays contagious until the rash is completely gone, which can take about 2 to 4 weeks. During this time, the following precautions are recommended by the AAP:

  • People with mpox should cover their skin sores.
  • Parents and caregivers should help children avoid scratching the sores and touching their eyes.
  • People with mpox should stay away from others, including pets. If possible, one designated person should care for a child with mpox and avoid touching the rash.
  • Kids who are at least 2 years old and have mpox should wear a well-fitting mask when around a caregiver. The caregiver should wear a special mask and gloves when touching the child's skin or handling bandages and clothes.
  • Children and teenagers should not go back to school or childcare while they're still contagious. The decision to stop isolating and go back to school should be made with guidance from local or state health officials.

There is treatment available for those with severe cases of monkeypox or who are at higher risk of severe disease. This includes babies under 1 year old, individuals with weakened immune systems, certain skin conditions, accidental infection in specific areas like the eyes or genitals, and kids with complications. The primary treatment is tecovirimat, which is given under a special protocol for research. (The CDC has made it easier to get this treatment recently.) Tecovirimat can be taken in pill form or through an IV.

A vaccine called JYNNEOS is available for kids under 18 years old who have been in contact with monkeypox. This vaccine is approved for post-exposure protection and authorized by the Food and Drug Administration. It is given as a shot under the skin (subcutaneously), not into the skin (intradermally). Doctors should talk to the state or local health department when considering this vaccine for a child or teenager as a way to prevent infection after exposure to monkeypox.

The Takeaway

Understanding the symptoms of monkeypox in children is essential for early detection and appropriate medical care. While rare, monkeypox can cause significant discomfort and distress in affected children. Parents, caregivers, and healthcare professionals should remain vigilant and informed to ensure the well-being of young individuals and prevent potential outbreaks.

Disclaimer: The information on our site is NOT medical advice for any specific person or condition. It is only meant as general information. Please contact your health provider if you have any medical questions or concerns about your child or yourself.

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