This smallpox fact sheet explores the deadly nature of smallpox.


  • Smallpox is one of the deadliest diseases known to humans and the only one to be eradicated by vaccination.
  • Some estimates place the number of deaths to smallpox in the 20th century alone at approximately 300 million people.
  • Smallpox results from exposure to the virus variola major.
  • Symptoms of a typical smallpox infection began with a fever (headache, sore throat, and vomiting were common too) and lethargy about two weeks after exposure to the virus. In a few days, a raised rash appeared on the face and body, and sores formed inside the mouth, throat, and nose. Fluid-filled pustules would develop and expand, in some cases joining together and covering large areas of skin. In about the third week of illness, scabs formed and separated from the skin.
  • The disease spreads by close contact with sores or the respiratory droplets of a person infected with the virus.
  • Smallpox is highly contagious.
  • Even the bedding or clothes worn by that person can carry the virus. The infected remains a carrier until the last scab separates from their skin.
  • The smallpox mortality rate was around 30%.
  • Those who survived smallpox usually had permanent scarring from the scabs.
  • Loss of lips, nose, portions of the ear, and blindness could also remain for those who survived smallpox.

Smallpox Timeline

Learn more about smallpox and other diseases, outbreaks, and pandemics that threatened human civilization throughout history in our special podcast series: Plagued: Humanity’s History with Disease, Outbreaks, and Pandemics.

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