How Ebola virus disease spreads 

People can become infected with the Ebola virus if they come into contact with the blood, body fluids or organs of an infected person.

Most people are infected by giving care to other infected people, either by directly touching the victim's body or by cleaning up body fluids (stools, urine or vomit) that carry infectious blood.

Traditional African burial rituals have also played a part in its spread. The Ebola virus can survive for several days outside the body, including on the skin of an infected person, and it's common practice for mourners to touch the body of the deceased. They only then need to touch their mouth to risk becoming infected.

Other ways people can catch Ebola are:

  • touching the soiled clothing of an infected person, then touching their mouth
  • having sex with an infected person without using a condom (recent studies suggest that traces of Ebola virus may remain in a man's semen many months after he has recovered)
  • handling unsterilised needles or medical equipment that were used in the care of the infected person

A person is infectious as long as their blood, urine, stools or secretions contain the virus.

Who is at risk?

Anyone who cares for an infected person or handles their blood or fluid samples is at risk of becoming infected. Hospital workers, laboratory workers and family members are at greatest risk.

Strict infection control procedures and wearing protective clothing minimises this risk – see preventing the spread of Ebola virus for more information. Simply washing hands with soap and water can destroy the virus.

Can you catch Ebola by touching the skin of someone with symptoms of Ebola?

If the person has a fever but no other symptoms, then the level of virus in their body is very low and unlikely to be passed on to someone else.

In later stages, all body fluids such as blood, urine, faeces, vomit, saliva and semen are infectious, with blood, faeces and vomit being the most infectious. 

Ebola virus disease is not spread through ordinary social contact, such as shaking hands, travelling on public transport or sitting beside someone who is infected and does not have any symptoms - see below.

How is Ebola not spread?

You'd need to have close contact with the source of infection to be at risk. 

The virus is not, for example, as infectious as diseases such as the flu, as airborne transmission is much less likely.

Ebola virus disease is generally not spread through routine social contact (such as shaking hands) with patients who do not have symptoms. 

It's unlikely you would catch Ebola just by travelling on a plane with someone who is infected. You would need to have had direct contact with the blood or body fluids from that person.

It’s also unlikely you would catch Ebola virus from the sweat left on gym equipment. A person who has symptoms of Ebola virus disease would not be well enough to go to the gym – and until they develop symptoms, they are not infectious. The World Health Organization (WHO) says whole live virus has never been isolated from sweat.

Why is the risk low for people in the UK?

The likelihood of catching Ebola virus disease is considered very low unless you've travelled to a known infected area and had direct contact with a person with Ebola-like symptoms, or had contact with an infected animal or contaminated objects. 

The time it takes for symptoms to appear after infection ranges from two to 21 days, so it is possible that a person infected in Africa could arrive in the UK. But this is extremely unlikely to result in a large outbreak of Ebola virus disease in the UK.

The overview page explains in more detail why the risk in the UK is considered low.

How did the outbreak start?

It's thought the Ebola virus has been living harmlessly in fruit bats for many years, building up in this population and spreading to other forest animals including chimpanzees and gorillas.

It's likely the virus makes its way into people after they butcher or handle dead animals contaminated with the virus.

Ebola was first identified in Africa in the mid-1970s.
The current outbreak, which began in March 2014, has been the most serious so far.

Page last reviewed: 15/10/2014

Next review due: 15/10/2016