Making Sense of Zika Virus

The Zika virus has captured headlines this past year. Especially if you are planning winter travel to areas where Zika is a threat, here’s what you should know.

Most commonly, the Zika virus is spread when mosquitoes bite an infected person, then one without the virus. In addition, mothers can also pass it to children during pregnancy and birth. And doctors have now documented cases spread through sexual contact.

Most infections cause only a mild illness. However, women infected with the Zika virus while pregnant or who become pregnant may have babies with microcephaly, a birth defect involving an abnormally small head and problems with brain development.

How to Spot Zika

Only about 20 percent of people infected with the Zika virus become sick. Of those who do get sick, most show only mild symptoms, including:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Joint or muscle pain
  • Rash
  • Red eyes

These symptoms have been found to last from several days to a week. Most people don’t feel bad enough to go to the hospital. So many recover without knowing which virus infected them.

Anyone who travels to affected countries can contract the disease from an infected mosquito. Check cdc.gov/zika/geo for the latest list. Doctors believe sexual transmission can occur before, during and after a patient has symptoms.

See your doctor, especially if you’ve recently traveled to a place with Zika. Share the details of your recent travels. He or she will likely order a blood test to check for Zika or other viral diseases with similar symptoms.

Protecting Against Zika

Currently, there is no treatment for Zika or a vaccine to help boost immunity. But you can still take steps to stay safe.

Start by preventing mosquito bites, especially when you travel. Wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants, sleep indoors or under a mosquito net, and use insect repellents registered by the Environmental Protection Agency (find details at epa.gov/insect-repellents).

Take extra precautions when pregnant. Avoid traveling to areas where Zika is spreading. If you are pregnant and have recently traveled to a Zika-infected country, check in with your doctor even if you feel fine. Doctors are working hard to understand the link between Zika and microcephaly. Yours will help you understand the risks—and what to do about them.