Because Zika virus is in the news a lot, you might worry about how it could affect you or your family. But a Zika infection usually won't cause problems in children and babies. The virus is of most concern for pregnant women and women who may become pregnant.
What Is Zika Virus?
Zika is a virus that a person can catch if bitten by an infected mosquito. First seen in Africa about 70 years ago, the virus recently has spread throughout the world, particularly in tropical areas where certain types of mosquitoes live.
The main problem with Zika is its effect on unborn babies. In pregnant women, the virus can cause miscarriages, stillborn babies, or babies with birth defects. One serious birth defect caused by Zika is microcephaly. In microcephaly (the medical word for small head), a baby's brain and skull don't grow properly, so the baby will have severe developmental and health problems.
Pregnant women — and women who might become pregnant — shouldn't travel to places with Zika outbreaks, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Healthy children who get a Zika infection will not develop microcephaly. Only babies infected from Zika before they're born are at risk for problems with brain development.
Often, Zika causes no symptoms. When it does, symptoms are mild and can include fever, rash, joint pain, and pinkeye.
How It Spreads
The most common way a person can get Zika is from being bitten by an Aedes aegypti or Aedes albopictus mosquito that's infected with the virus. These mosquitoes live in places that have tropical or mild climates.
The virus also can spread through unprotected sex. Due to concerns that it also can be passed through blood transfusions or organ transplants, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) now recommends screening all blood donors in the United States for Zika virus.
Because the Zika virus can pass from an infected mom-to-be to her unborn baby, it's important to take precautions if you're pregnant or think you might become pregnant. If you live in an area with Zika outbreaks, do your best to prevent mosquito bites, use condoms to prevent getting Zika through sex, and talk to your doctor.
No Zika virus infections have been linked to breastfeeding. The CDC encourages mothers to keep breastfeeding, even if they've been infected with Zika. But as a precaution, breastfeeding women should still avoid possible exposure to the virus.
Zika virus isn't as contagious as some other viruses. It doesn't spread from person to person through sneezes and coughs, as colds and the flu do. People can't get Zika from casual contact, like holding hands.
Where It Is
The CDC has confirmed Zika outbreaks in:
- The Caribbean
- Central America
- South America
- Pacific Islands
Zika-spreading mosquitoes also have been found in the United States (Florida and Puerto Rico), and some people in the United States have Zika infections. Check the CDC's website for the latest news.
Signs and Symptoms
Most people who are infected with Zika don't have any symptoms, so people often don't even know they have the virus.
Zika symptoms, when present, are usually very mild. People might notice problems like these 2 to 14 days after being infected:
- joint pain in the hands and feet
- muscle pain
- red eyes without pus
A very small number of Zika infection cases also develop Guillain-Barré syndrome, a neurological condition with extreme muscle weakness and paralysis.
Doctors can check people for Zika by doing blood tests or urine (pee) tests.
Pregnant women or women who might become pregnant should contact their doctor if they think they might have been exposed to Zika, even if they don't have symptoms.
Most people with Zika infection get better in 2 to 7 days by resting at home and drinking lots of fluids. Give kids acetaminophen to help with fever and aches. Never give aspirin to kids or teens, especially during viral illness, as such use has been linked to Reye syndrome, a potentially life-threatening disease.
Because some over-the-counter medicines contain aspirin, always read labels and check with your doctor before using them. Some aspirin-containing medicines use words other than aspirin (such as salicylate or acetylsalicylate), so avoid those, too.
Antibiotics don't work on viral infections like Zika.
Currently, there is no vaccine for Zika virus. If you're pregnant or thinking about becoming pregnant, the best ways to protect yourself are to avoid mosquito bites and take precautions when having sex.
To avoid mosquito bites if you live in or visit areas with Zika outbreaks:
- Cover up skin. Wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants. Clothing that's been sprayed or treated with an insect repellent called permethrin offers added protection.
- Stay indoors. Keep windows closed in homes that have air conditioning, or install window screens and make sure they have no holes.
- Use insect repellent. Choose an insect repellent that's 10% to 30% DEET (look for N,N-diethyl-m-toluamide on the label). Don't put on DEET more than once a day, and don't use it on babies younger than 2 months.
Picaridin is another kind of mosquito repellent that the CDC says can be used. And oil of lemon eucalyptus is safe to use on kids 3 years and older.
- Get rid of standing water. Drain containers of standing water (such as children's swimming pools, jars, flowerpots, or buckets) where mosquitoes can breed.
Couples trying to get pregnant who live in or visit places with Zika outbreaks should consider waiting to get pregnant. Because the virus may spread through sex, it's best if men use condoms.
- If a woman gets a Zika infection or has traveled to a Zika-infected area, the couple should wait at least 8 weeks before trying to get pregnant.
- If a man gets a Zika infection or has traveled to a Zika-infected area, the couple should wait at least 6 months before trying to get pregnant.
Couples who are already pregnant shouldn't have sex during pregnancy or should always use a condom if either partner has been somewhere with a Zika outbreak.
Even couples who are not pregnant or trying to become pregnant should use a condom during sex for at least 6 months after either of the partners has traveled to a Zika-infected area.
When to Call a Doctor
Women who are pregnant (or think they might be pregnant) should call their doctor if they've been in areas with Zika or have any signs of the virus.