What Is Zika Virus? Causes, Symptoms, Treatments, and Prevention

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Have you had a rash, fever, joint or muscle pain, or red eyes? Have you recently traveled to a country in Africa, the Americas, Asia, or the Pacific? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you might have Zika. Mosquitoes spread the Zika virus in areas where infections are endemic. Usually, an infection with this virus doesn’t result in any symptoms. But, pregnant people that have Zika have a higher risk of miscarriage or may give birth to babies with serious birth defects. If you had exposure to the Zika virus, especially if you are pregnant or plan on becoming pregnant, learn more about the virus below.

What Is the Zika Virus?

The Zika virus is spread primarily by mosquitoes, usually in tropical or subtropical areas. Examples of countries that have mosquitoes that carry the Zika virus are:

  •  The United States
  • India
  • Indonesia
  • Several Latin American countries like Belize, Costa Rica
  • Some West African countries, such as Angola, Cameroon, and Nigeria

Outbreak History

The Zika virus was first identified in humans in 1952 in East Africa, with only sporadic infections occurring until the 1980s. The first Zika outbreak occurred in the Federated States of Micronesia in 2007. Another outbreak occurred in French Polynesia and other territories in the Pacific in 2013. In March 2015, Brazil reported an outbreak of rash illness that was discovered to be caused by the Zika virus. In October 2015, Brazil reported an association between the virus and microcephaly, or small head and brain size, in the babies of women who were infected during pregnancy. Worldwide, 86 countries and territories have reported cases of mosquito-transmitted Zika infection, and outbreaks of this virus have occurred in Africa, the Americas, Asia, and the Pacific. 

Signs & Symptoms of Zika Virus

If you get the Zika virus, you likely won’t have any symptoms. However, those who become symptomatic after infection usually have mild symptoms. Zika virus symptoms most commonly include:

  • Mild fever
  • Rash
  • Joint pain, especially in the hands and feet
  • Red eyes
  • Muscle pain
  • Headache
  • Eye pain
  • Fatigue
  • Abdominal pain

The time from exposure to the Zika virus to the onset of symptoms is about 3–14 days. Symptoms usually last from 2–7 days.

Complications

Although rare, the Zika virus can cause complications in adults and older children, specifically neurological issues like Guillain-Barre syndrome, neuropathy, and myelitis. If you are pregnant and infected with the Zika virus, you have a higher risk of a miscarriage, preterm birth, or stillbirth. You’re also at risk of having a baby with congenital Zika syndrome. 

Babies with congenital Zika syndrome can have serious birth defects, such as:

  • Microcephaly, or a smaller than normal brain and head size with a partially collapsed skull
  • Brain damage
  • Eye damage
  • Joint problems, including limited joint motion
  • Hypertonia, or too much muscle tone after birth, often leading to reduced body movement

Causes of Zika Virus

You can get Zika virus if a mosquito carrying the virus bites you. However, you can also get it via unprotected sex with an infected person, blood transfusions, or organ transplantation. If you are pregnant, you can pass the Zika virus to your baby.

Risk Factors

You are at an increased risk of infection with the Zika virus if you:

  • Live in or have recently traveled to an area where the virus is endemic
  • Have had unprotected sex with someone who lives in or has recently traveled to an area where there is a current Zika outbreak

Diagnostic Tests

If your doctor suspects you have the Zika virus infection, they can diagnose you by doing a blood or urine test. Also, if you’re pregnant with no symptoms but think you may have Zika because you’ve traveled to an area with past or current Zika outbreaks, ask your doctor if you need to be tested.

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If you’re pregnant and at risk of Zika virus infection, your doctor may perform:

  • An ultrasound to see if there are any issues with your baby’s brain
  • A procedure called amniocentesis, where your doctor will insert a needle into your uterus and take a sample of the amniotic fluid surrounding your baby to see if the Zika virus is present

Treatments for Zika Virus

There is no specific Zika virus treatment. If you have symptoms, get plenty of rest, drink fluids to prevent dehydration, and use over-the-counter acetaminophen (Tylenol) to relieve joint pain or fever.

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The symptoms of Zika virus infection are similar to those of a different viral infection called dengue fever. Don’t take ibuprofen (Advil or Motrin), naproxen sodium (Aleve), or aspirin until your doctor makes sure you don’t have dengue fever because these medications can increase your risk of getting serious dengue fever complications.

If you are pregnant and live in an area with high rates of Zika virus transmission or develop symptoms of Zika virus infection, you should speak to your doctor about medical care immediately.

Prevention

There is no vaccine for the Zika virus, but if you or your partner are pregnant or are trying to get pregnant, there are a few ways you can avoid infection:

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  • Avoid traveling to areas with Zika outbreaks.
  • Practice safe sex since the Zika virus can be transmitted through unprotected sex. If you are pregnant and you have a partner who lives in or has recently traveled to an area where there is an outbreak of the Zika virus, the CDC recommends that you abstain from sex or always use a condom for all sexual activity during pregnancy.

If you are traveling to areas where there are mosquitoes that carry the Zika virus, you can prevent infection by:

  • Staying in air-conditioned or well-screened housing while you travel.
  • Wearing protective clothing, such as a long-sleeved shirt, long pants, socks, and shoes, if you are in a mosquito-infested area.
  • Using insect repellent to prevent mosquito bites, particularly one containing DEET, picaridin, or any other active ingredient registered as effective against mosquitoes by the Environmental Protection Agency.
  • Emptying animal dishes, flower pots, used automobile tires, and any other containers that may store water at least once a week. Mosquitoes tend to live and breed around these sources of standing water.

Next Steps: When To See Your Doctor

Talk to your doctor if you’ve recently traveled to an area with recent Zika cases or think you’ve been otherwise exposed to the virus. 

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Do you plan on getting pregnant soon? Speak to your doctor about where you plan to travel or where you’ve already traveled. If you’ve recently traveled to an area with a high risk of Zika infection, your doctor may recommend waiting 2–3 months after your trip before trying to get pregnant. If you are infected with the Zika virus during pregnancy, your baby may be born with significant health issues, including microcephaly. 

There are several resources available to help manage your child’s medical care if your baby has been affected by the Zika virus. You can learn more about the Zika virus, support groups for families impacted by the virus, and caregiver resources here.

Resource Links:

  1. “Travelers’ Health: Zika Travel Information” via CDC
  2. “Zika and Pregnancy: Support for Families and Caregivers of Babies Affected by Zika” via CDC
  3. “Zika virus” via Mayo Clinic
  4. “Congenital Zika Syndrome and Other Birth Defects” via CDC
  5. “Zika virus” via WHO