If you’ve been terrified by the evolution of the Zika virus story, you’re not alone. What started as a questionable link between rising viral infections and birth defects has turned into a growing realization that Zika virus could be the next big danger for pregnant women and their unborn children. On top of that, the rapid appearance of the virus has left many of those who are most threatened by the virus uninformed about Zika infection and how to prevent it. As the summer weather starts to kick into gear across the United States, I want to spend some time walking through what you should know about this new virus and what you can do to protect yourself.
Who should worry about infection?
In theory, everyone is at risk for infection, but some will suffer more serious consequences. The link between birth defects in the babies of mothers infected with Zika gets stronger on an almost daily basis. Pregnant women have to be very careful. Zika virus is carried by mosquitoes, which means those most at risk of being infected are those who live in areas where infected mosquitoes might be found. Fortunately, not every mosquito carries the virus. A specific species of mosquito, called the Aedes aegypti mosquito, is the main carrier for Zika (as well as other diseases like yellow fever, dengue fever, and Chikungunya). The CDC also reports a lower risk of transmission from the Aedes albopictus mosquito.
Can Zika only be passed through mosquito bites?
As the news has reported time and again, Zika virus can be passed from mother to fetus. Once infected, there seems to be a significant risk that the fetus will suffer damage from the virus. In particular, several studies have shown that the virus concentrates in the nervous system, which has likely lead to the brain defects in newborns reported in countries like Brazil.
A recent study also found that the Zika virus can be sexually transmitted, at least from males to females and likely between gay men. This transmission can happen before symptoms show up, during the full-blown illness, and even for after the symptoms go away. It’s not clear how often the virus is transmitted through sex, but it’s clear that women who plan on getting pregnant or who are pregnant should be very cautious about having sex with someone who was recently infected.
With that said, Zika virus can’t be passed through the air or through everyday contact. You shouldn’t be afraid to spend time with people currently or recently infected with the Zika virus since they cannot pass it to you through casual contact. A cough or sneeze from a passerby will not put you in danger.
What are the symptoms of infection?
It’s important to know that not all people infected with the Zika virus show symptoms. Even if symptoms are present, they may just seem like a brief cold or flu. In both cases, it can be very hard to know who’s been infected and who hasn’t, which makes preventing infection all the more important. Avoiding the virus by keeping mosquitoes away is a far better strategy than watching for symptoms. With that said, here are a few of the more common symptoms you might see with a Zika virus infection.
- Joint pain
- Red eyes
- Muscle pain
Symptoms are often mild, last at most a week, and may start at any time up to a week after being infected. If you’re pregnant, you’ve been to an area where Zika has been found, and you experience several of these symptoms, especially a rash, you should see a doctor.
How can I get diagnosed and treated?
If you develop some of the above symptoms and you’ve recently been to an area where Zika virus is present, see your doctor. They may run some blood tests to try and look for signs of the Zika virus. Seeing your doctor also helps the CDC keep track of who’s getting infected and where so they can target their prevention efforts and learn more about the virus.
Unfortunately, there is no currently no treatment for Zika virus. In addition, no vaccines exist to protect uninfected people from getting the virus. The best thing you can do is treat your symptoms by doing the following things.
- Get plenty of rest as your body fights the infection
- Stay well hydrated
- Acetaminophen can help reduce fever symptoms
- Don’t take aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen, or other NSAIDs, since these medications can increase your bleeding risk if your symptoms are actually from dengue fever
What can I do to avoid infection?
The best way to avoid infection is to avoid mosquito bites since there is no vaccine. Here are few tips you can act on now in anticipation of mosquito season.
- Buy insect repellent that is EPA registered and that contains one of the following ingredients: DEET, picaridin, IR3535, oil of lemon eucalyptus, or para-menthane-diol.
- When applying mosquito repellent, follow the directions carefully and know how often to reapply.
- Check the bug screens on your doors and windows for holes or areas of fraying. Patch them or replace them to make sure mosquitoes will be kept out.
- If you’re pregnant, reconsider any vacation plans you’ve made to areas where Zika virus is circulating.
- Buy some light, summer clothing that covers your arms and legs to protect against mosquito bites. You might consider clothes treated with permethrin, which repels insects.
How can I protect other people?
If you know you’ve been infected or you’re coming back from an area with Zika virus, it’s very important that you keep from getting bitten by mosquitoes. Zika virus can circulate in the blood for about three weeks, which means any mosquito that bites you during that time could pick up the virus and pass it on to their next victim. Protecting yourself from further mosquito bites also prevents spread of the virus.
If you’re a man returning from an area where Zika has been found and have a partner who is pregnant, you should use condoms every time you have sexual contact of any kind with your partner for the whole time you’re having sex to stop any sexual transmission. You should do this even if you don’t have symptoms since those infected may not have symptoms. You should not stop using condoms until after your partner has given birth.
Can we stop the spread of the Aedes aegypti mosquito?
Many areas where the Zika virus has been infecting people have started efforts to try and kill the mosquitoes that carry it. Unfortunately, these mosquitoes are incredibly good at reproducing. The Aedes aegypti mosquito can reproduce in tiny puddles of water, like the kind you might see in the mud after a rainstorm. To prevent these diseases from spreading, we need to support long-term mosquito control projects in our communities and across the country. Zika and other mosquito-borne illnesses won’t go away tomorrow just because we start spraying insecticides, but they might if we engage as a country in the eradication of disease-carrying mosquitoes.
If you’d like more information about the Zika virus, visit the CDC website.