How do you get Ebola? I’m sure this question is on everyone’s mind as the virus rapidly becomes an international health emergency. It’s important not to let hysteria get the best of you because, as The Washington Post so eloquently put it, “Fear can spread even faster than the virus.” Ebola is serious and extremely deadly, but like all viruses, the number one risk factor of contracting it is actually coming in contact with someone who has the virus.

How You Can Become Infected

Direct Contact With A Symptomatic Patient

In order to get Ebola, you have to come into direct contact with bodily fluids of a person who is infected with the virus and already symptomatic. Ebola is caused by a family of viruses called filoviridae, and like all viruses in this family, can only be spread through person-to-person transmission. “For the average person, the risk is low,” a U.S. doctor who specializes in infectious disease but preferred to remain anonymous because he/she did not have permission to speak with the media, told Medical Daily. “Urban health care workers may be a little bit more at risk, but I don’t think your average community clinic is.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Ebola is spread by direct contact with blood and bodily fluids, including but not limited to: urine, saliva, sweat, feces, vomit, breast milk, and semen. Also, not all these bodily fluids are as potent as others. For example, while blood and feces are usually quite abundant with the virus, other fluids such as saliva and sweat are much less likely to carry the virus. To become infected, these fluids must enter your body through either broken skin or through a mucous membrane, such as those found in the eyes, nose, or mouth. “If they don’t have a fever, they are not shedding the virus,” the doctor told Medical Daily.

The Dead

It is unknown how long the Ebola virus can remain alive on dead bodies, but experts predict that it may takes months before the virus is completely deactivated on an infected corpse. This is why so much emphasis has been placed on immediate disposal of contaminated cadavers.

Contaminated Objects and Materials

Another unfortunate aspect of Ebola is that the virus is quite efficient at living outside of the human body. This is why it’s possible to get the virus from non-organic materials. You can get Ebola from infected objects, such as needles or syringes, that have been contaminated with the infected bodily fluids of an Ebola patient.

NPR reported that the virus can remain alive outside a body for weeks, but environmental conditions such as heat and oxygen weaken the virus. Sweat transferred onto inanimate objects is also far less likely but not completely ruled out. “It’s not zero percent but it's low. It depends on the length of time. They did not find the virus in the environment from people touching objects the majority of the time,” explained the infectious disease specialist to Medical Daily.

How You Cannot Become Infected


The only cases where it's known to be spread by food is through the handling of infected raw bush meat. “If it’s cooked or smoked, there is essentially zero risk,” Daniel Baush, an associate professor of tropical medicine at Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, told The Washington Post. “You have to have contact with the relatively fresh blood or bodily fluids of the animal.”

Although illegal, bush meat does continue to be sold in and outside of Africa. Still, as Baush explained, the preparer is the only one in danger of bush meat contamination, since the meat sold abroad has already been dried or prepared. Due to this, it’s fair to conclude that, in general, traditional African dishes pose next to zero threat.


Ebola is also not spread through water. According to NPR, the virus is deactivated within minutes of being in water. Dr. Alan Schmaljohn, a virologist at the University of Maryland, explained to NPR that this is because, unlike bacteria, viruses are not as resilient outside of the host. Each Ebola virus is encased in an envelope taken from the outer surface of a membrane of a host cell, and water does not provide a rich enough environment to allow this. This means that water supplies are in no danger or accidental (or intentional) Ebola contamination.

A Plane or Other Closed Airspaces

Ebola is not spread through the air, so merely being in the same room as an Ebola patient is of no consequence. Ebola can only spread through water droplets too large to become airborne, NPR reported. An infected individual would have to sneeze directly in your face, and their fluids would need to enter your eyes, mouth, or nose in order for there to be even the slightest chance of contamination. As for traveling; “If you’re sitting next to them or you're touching them — but usually you don’t touch people on a plane — it’s less likely,” the infectious disease doctor explained.

While the chances of being infected by Ebola on a plane or through another method of travel are not exactly zero, they are extremely low. In 1995, researchers followed 173 family members of 27 infected people. Seventy-eight of those had no direct contact with the infected member and had only been exposed to the virus through the air. None of these family members contracted Ebola.


Merely touching an infected individual, as previously explained by the infectious disease doctor, carries an extremely low risk for Ebola transmission, and as mentioned, the virus needs to spread from bodily fluids to open wounds or mucous membranes. Traditional burial habits in many of the infected areas include practices such as using a common bowl for ritual hand-washing and kissing the corpse’s face, The Daily Beast reported. Also, in many cultures the body is buried dangerously close to the deceased’s family. It is these traditions, not mere skin-to-skin touching, that has so quickly accelerated the viruses spread.