What is Zika?

Zika is a virus that is passed from mosquitos to humans. We can then transmit the virus to other humans. This typically happens through sex (vaginal or anal) or during pregnancy.

The Zika virus gets its name from the Zika forest in Uganda, where it was initially discovered in 1947. Most recently, the virus has been linked to Brazil, Puerto Rico, Miami, and other areas in the Americas.

According to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), pregnant women or women trying to get pregnant are not more vulnerable to Zika. However, they are at great risk of passing the virus onto their baby.

Symptoms of Zika

If infected mosquitos bite you, you may experience symptoms. These can include fever, rash, red eyes, joint or muscle pain, or headaches. Symptoms can occur 2 to 7 days after being bitten, and can last for several days to a week while the virus runs its course.

Studies show that most people never know they have the virus. On average, only 1 in 5 people experience any symptoms related to Zika.

What causes Zika?

Certain species of mosquitos are responsible for spreading Zika to humans. Aedes mosquitos can also carry dengue fever and chikungunya virus. This type of mosquito is known to bite in daytime and be attracted to waterlogged areas. Once infected, you can spread the virus through sex, pregnancy, blood transfusion, or lab exposure. You do not need to experience symptoms in order to carry and spread the virus.

The recent outbreak has been linked to an increase of babies born with severe brain defects. The main condition, microcephaly, occurs when a baby’s brain does not develop normally. It is noticeable by the baby’s head being smaller than average.

How is Zika diagnosed?

Contact your doctor immediately if you live in or have traveled to an area where Zika is present, or if you are experiencing any symptoms. There are two types of tests your doctor can perform to diagnose the virus.

  • A blood test will check to see if your body is trying to fight off the Zika infection.
  • A urine test will show presence of the actual virus. It will only be positive if Zika has been in your system for less than 2 weeks.

Depending on your situation, your doctor will order one or both tests. The results usually come back in 3 to 5 days.

If you are pregnant and test positive for Zika, your doctor will add you to the U.S. Zika Pregnancy Registry. This list is confidential and free. Doctors and researchers use the data to understand the effects of Zika. You might also require additional tests to check your baby’s health. Zika has been linked to microcephaly cases. Your doctor can test for this condition during pregnancy or post-birth.

Can Zika be prevented or avoided?

Currently, a vaccine to prevent Zika does not exist. The CDC alerts people to cancel or delay travel to areas where Zika has been reported. Known areas include Brazil, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and parts of Florida. (Check CDC’s website for a full list of locations.) This is especially true for pregnant women, or people trying to get pregnant. You are at greater risk if you live in a Zika area or your partner travels there. Practice safe sex and wear condoms to prevent getting the virus.

You also should take precautions to avoid mosquito bites. Wear approved insect spray and long clothes. Avoid bodies of water and sleep with a mosquito net. Insect repellent is safe for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, if used correctly.

Zika treatment

There is no medicine or prescription to treat the Zika virus. Talk to your doctor before taking any medicine for symptoms.

There also is no cure for babies born with microcephaly, a birth defect linked to Zika. Treatment options will vary based on severity of the condition.

Living with Zika

If your doctor diagnoses Zika, it will run its course naturally. To avoid spreading Zika, wear condoms to practice safe sex (vaginal or anal).

If you are pregnant and might have Zika, contact your doctor immediately. You will be added to a pregnancy registry to monitor the condition. Doctors and scientists continue to gather research in hopes to create a vaccine and cure for the Zika virus.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • Once I’ve had Zika, can I get it again? Will I always be a carrier of the virus?
  • If I’m pregnant and have been exposed to Zika, what are the chances of transmitting the virus to my baby? Are there any other factors that play into this, such as environment, medicines, or other viruses?
  • Can I transmit Zika to my baby after they are born? For example, through breast milk.