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Smallpox: Clinical and Epidemiologic Features

D. A. Henderson
Date posted:
July 31, 1999
Publication type:

Emerg Infect Dis 1999;5(4):537-539

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Article available as PDF
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Full article as PDF


Smallpox is a viral disease unique to humans. To sustain itself, the virus must pass from person to person in a continuing chain of infection and is spread by inhalation of air droplets or aerosols. Twelve to 14 days after infection, the patient typically becomes febrile and has severe aching pains and prostration. Some 2 to 3 days later, a papular rash develops over the face and spreads to the extremities (Figure 1in PDF). The rash soon becomes vesicular and later, pustular (Figure 2 in PDF). The patient remains febrile throughout the evolution of the rash and customarily experiences considerable pain as the pustules grow and expand. Gradually, scabs form, which eventually separate, leaving pitted scars. Death usually occurs during the second week.

The disease most commonly confused with smallpox is chickenpox, and during the first 2 to 3 days of rash, it may be all but impossible to distinguish between the two. However, all smallpox lesions develop at the same pace and, on any part of the body, appear identical. Chickenpox lesions are much more superficial and develop in crops. With chickenpox, scabs, vesicles, and pustules may be seen simultaneously on adjacent areas of skin. Moreover, the rash in chickenpox is more dense over the trunk (the reverse of smallpox), and chickenpox lesions are almost never found on the palms or soles.

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