How to protect yourself from Zika
How to protect yourself from Zika
January 12, 2017

How to protect yourself from Zika

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How to protect yourself from Zika.
Photo by @thefabjunkie
How to protect yourself from Zika

Early in 2016, the obscure tropical virus called Zika was discovered to cause a severe birth defect called microcephaly. If you or your partner are planning for or expecting a baby, you should know how to protect yourselves from becoming infected with Zika.

Zika is a virus carried by certain species of mosquitoes (Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus). The virus doesn’t usually cause significant symptoms, but it can cause severe birth defects if the virus is passed on from a pregnant woman to her fetus. The virus can also be sexually transmitted, which is why both members of a couple need to protect themselves with bug spray and use condoms if one might be infected.

Where is Zika?

This map from the CDC is regularly updated to show the latest range of the Zika-carrying mosquitoes in the USA. If you don’t live in an at-risk area, protecting yourself is simple: just avoid traveling to the areas where Zika is prevalent, at least until a vaccine is developed. (Currently, no vaccine exists for Zika.)

If you’re planning on international travel and are pregnant or trying to conceive, here’s a list of Zika travel notices by country. Is it worth shifting around your vacation plans to avoid Zika? The CDC says yes.

Protecting yourself from Zika in your area

If you do live in an at-risk area, you should take measures to protect yourself. Because one way Zika is spread is by mosquitoes, a Zika protection plan takes standard mosquito protection and steps it up a couple of notches.

Here’s a list of everything you can do to prevent mosquito bites:
  • Wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants to protect your skin from mosquitoes.
  • Use an EPA-registered insect repellent with one of the following active ingredients: DEET, picaridin, IR3535, oil of lemon eucalyptus, para-menthane-diol, or 2-undecanone.
  • Spend as much time as possible in air-conditioned areas with window and door screens. Make sure all of your own windows and doors have screens.
  • Treat your clothing and other gear with permethrin, following instructions on the bottle. (If you haven’t used permethrin before, it’s like bug spray that you use on objects instead of your skin. Don’t put it directly on your skin.)
  • Once per week, drain or dump any standing water around your house (downspouts, planters, and so forth). Treat standing water, such as ponds or bird baths with larvicides, which kill mosquito larvae. These larvicides (which come in many forms) are not for use in drinking water. When used as directed, they will not harm people or pets.
  • For mosquito protection when sleeping, you can put up a bed net, especially if you’re sleeping someplace where mosquitoes could sneak in.

Checking yourself for Zika

Zika symptoms include fever, rash, joint pain, and red eyes, but the symptoms tend to be mild. You can also have Zika and not show any symptoms. The CDC recommends that pregnant women who live in or frequently travel to an area with Zika and do not have symptoms should be tested in the first and second trimester of pregnancy. A blood or urine test can show whether Zika infection has occurred. If your partner lives in or frequently travels to areas with Zika, he may get bitten by an infected mosquito and get Zika. To prevent possible transmission of the virus to you, use a condom or don’t have sex during your pregnancy.

What we don’t know about Zika

Because Zika is still a new threat, there are a lot of things scientists have yet to learn. For example, we don’t know how likely it is that a person will get the virus if he or she travels to a place with Zika-infected mosquitoes. That’s why we say, “better safe than sorry,” in regard to canceling vacation plans. There’s no good way to check the size of the risk you’re taking.

We also don’t know if there’s a safe time during your pregnancy to travel to an area with Zika. So if you’re wondering, “Is there a certain month when I’m out of the woods and don’t have to worry about it anymore?” – sorry! We don’t know that either.

Finally, if you do get Zika, we don’t know how likely it is that the virus will pass to your fetus or whether an infected fetus will have birth defects. Some (not all!) pregnant women with Zika have babies with birth defects.

Which birth defects are caused by Zika?

Zika causes microcephaly, a birth defect where a baby’s head is smaller than expected when compared to babies of the same sex and age. This can mean decreased brain tissue or brain damage. Damage to the back of the eye, joints with limited range of motion (such as clubfoot) and too much muscle tone restricting body movement, are other possible problems.

Are the effects of Zika permanent for women?

The CDC writes, “Based on the available evidence, we think that Zika virus infection in a woman who is not pregnant would not pose a risk for birth defects in future pregnancies after the virus has cleared from her blood. From what we know about similar infections, once a person has been infected with Zika virus, he or she is likely to be protected from a future Zika infection.”

So if you’ve had Zika and waited the recommended amount of time before getting pregnant, you’re probably out of the woods. Here’s a table that shows recommendations for how long to wait after possible exposure (of either partner) before trying to get pregnant.

What if my child gets Zika?

If your child is infected with Zika after birth, he or she will most likely have similar symptoms to an adult (mild fever, joint pain, rash, red eye). There’s currently no evidence that getting infected after birth leads to any developmental or growth issues. Also, after your child is two months old, it’s okay to use a baby-approved bug spray to protect them from mosquito bites. However, the time for greatest concern is during fetal development, not after your child is born.

Have any questions?

The CDC website has very complete information covering what is known about Zika virus. If you want to know more details about the disease, try checking there or contacting them. Yes, it’s scary, but at least the steps for prevention are fairly straightforward. Stay healthy!

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