8 Calming Facts You Need to Know About the Zika Virus—and 3 Reasons to Worry
Freaked out about the Zika virus this summer? The soothing facts no one is talking about—plus when you should worry.
People are alarmed about Zika
The first continental U.S.-born baby with Zika virus-related birth defects was delivered on May 31, 2016. She has a condition which has been linked to the virus called microcephaly, meaning her head is smaller than expected, usually indicating brain development problems. The virus was passed from her mother, who was diagnosed in Honduras before traveling to New Jersey, where she has family, to seek treatment.
With temperatures rising and mosquitoes—the main spreaders of the disease—getting more common, it’s easy to get anxious about growing cases in America. Read on to figure out if you have any reason to worry.
Don’t worry: Zika spreads less easily than a cold
Most cases of the virus are contracted through mosquito bites. The only ways Zika can be spread from human to human are through sexual contact or from mother to child during pregnancy. It is also possible to pass during blood transfusion, though no cases of that have been reported in the United States. For more fast facts about the Zika virus, read this.
Don’t worry: So far, all U.S. cases appear to have been caught abroad
All of the nearly 600 U.S. cases of Zika that have been reported in the United States as of May 25 were travel-related, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Even though Aedes aegypti, the mosquito species that spreads most Zika cases, is concentrated in Hawaii and along the Gulf Coast, no American mosquitoes have been determined to cause any infections.
Don’t worry: Symptoms are usually mild
Most infected people don’t show symptoms of the Zika virus and probably won’t even realize they have the virus. The most common effects are mild—rashes, fever, sore joints and red eyes—and usually last about a week. Few people die or are hospitalized from the virus. In rare cases the virus has been linked with brain and spinal cord infections, but scientists are still investigating the connection. The biggest concern is the birth defects that Zika virus has been found to cause when women become infected during pregnancy.
Don’t worry: It’s not a given U.S. mosquitoes will pick up the virus
In order for an outbreak to happen in the United States, an Aedes aegypti or Aedes albopictus mosquito would have to bite someone within the first week that person became infected. Then it would need to survive long enough—they usually live about three weeks—for the virus to multiply before biting someone else. That cycle would have to repeat multiple times, according to the CDC.
Don’t worry: The U.S. is less friendly to mosquitoes
The largest outbreaks thus far (in places like Brazil, Mexico, and Colombia) have fewer window screens and air conditioners to protect against mosquitoes, CDC Director Tom Frieden has said. Temperature-controlled areas with more bug prevention make it harder for bugs to bite as much.
Don’t worry: Zika travel warnings are mainly for pregnant women
The CDC recommends only that pregnant women, who could pass the virus to infants and potentially cause birth defects, avoid regions that have had Zika outbreaks. Plus, mosquitoes usually don’t live at altitudes of more than 6,500 feet, so areas at high elevation shouldn’t be a concern, even in countries home to virus-carrying mosquitoes.
Don’t worry: When you conceive matters
Although Zika can pass from mother to child during pregnancy, there is little concern for women who become pregnant after returning from a visit to an affected country. Anyone who’s had the disease before is immune, and the virus usually lasts about a week in an infected person. “Our understanding thus far is that the risk is very, very low if you were in that place prior to conception,” Laura E. Riley, MD, of Massachusetts General Hospital has said. “I wouldn’t be worried about if you conceived after you got back to the U.S.”
Worry if: Your summer getaway is home to a Zika outbreak
The CDC has travel notices for countries and territories in the Americas, the Caribbean and the Pacific Islands such as Mexico, Jamaica, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Brazil. If you’re visiting a country that’s had an outbreak, it’s worth protecting yourself from short-term symptoms and to prevent U.S. mosquitoes from picking up the bug by covering exposed skin, using bug spray, and sleeping in rooms with AC or window screens. Once you’re home, keep using insect repellent for three weeks so U.S. mosquitoes don’t get infected, and keep an eye out for Zika symptoms. Here are top ways to avoid getting bitten by a Zika virus mosquito, plus weird things mosquitoes hate.
Worry if: Your partner has visited an area with Zika
It’s unclear whether women can pass the virus sexually, but Zika stays in semen longer than in blood. The CDC recommends refraining from sex (including oral sex) or using a condom for at least eight weeks after coming home to reduce the risk of sexually transmitting the disease. Learn more about how Zika virus can spread through sexual transmission.
Worry if: You are or become pregnant while traveling
Spreading the Zika virus to a fetus while pregnant or at delivery can result in microcephaly, brain defects, impaired growth, eye defects, and hearing problems. If you travel to an area with a Zika outbreak, talk to a doctor, even if you aren’t showing signs of the virus—though it’s especially important if you develop symptoms within two weeks after your return.