The Zika virus can cause serious complications during pregnancy and can result in birth defects. The virus can be spread through a bite from an infected mosquito, and a 2013 study found it can be spread through sexual transmission as well.
Normally, the Zika virus isn’t serious. The main symptoms are fever, rash, joint pain, and conjunctivitis — these usually last anywhere from a few days to a week, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Symptoms can be so mild that some people aren’t even aware they have the virus. But that is exactly what makes the sexual transmission so dangerous.
Women who are pregnant or planning to get pregnant need to be concerned about whether they or their partner have been exposed to the Zika virus. Without obvious symptoms, this can be difficult.
Up until recently, the Zika virus has been mostly limited to areas in Africa, Southeast Asia, the South Pacific, South America,
and the Caribbean, according to WHO. If you or your partner traveled to these areas, then it’s recommended you take precautions before having sex. As the virus travels to the United States, and more people from the U.S. travel to the previously infected areas, the virus can spread and the risks for pregnant women increase. In addition, the virus is expected to spread to more countries around the world.
As of September 2018, there have been 41 cases of Zika virus in the United States, and all of them were reportedly contracted outside of the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). There were 82 cases within the U.S. territories, all of which were contracted locally.
Dangers of Zika during pregnancy
Contracting the Zika virus while or shortly before becoming pregnant can cause a birth defect called microcephaly, which causes a small head and underdeveloped brain in a baby, according to the CDC. Babies born with microcephaly can have developmental delays, intellectual disabilities, seizures, movement and balance difficulties, hearing and vision problems, and feeding problems. The severity can range from mild to serious, according to the University of Rochester.
Because of the serious complications during pregnancy and possible birth defects, women who are planning to conceive, have a chance of conceiving, or are pregnant should understand risk factors and take precautions to ensure the health of their child.
The following are six things you should know about the transmission of the Zika virus and how to protect yourself:
1. You can get Zika from your male partner. Men can spread the Zika virus through sexual activity, according to the CDC. The Zika virus stays in the semen, although for how long isn’t yet known. We do know that it can be spread via sexual transmission through vaginal and anal sex; it is not yet known whether it can be spread through oral sex; as a precaution, condoms should be used during all sexual activity with someone who has visited an area where the Zika virus is active. Men can spread the virus when they actively have symptoms, before symptoms start, and after symptoms end. It is not yet known whether women can spread the virus during sex or sexual activities.
2. The virus can remain active in semen for longer than in blood, with the longest noted time being 69 days, according to the CDC. It is not yet known if it can be spread through other bodily fluids, such as saliva or vaginal fluids.
3. The American Sexual Health Association recommends a condom should be used during all sexual activities, including vaginal, anal and oral sex, in the following situations:
- For six months after a man has shown symptoms of the Zika virus or has been diagnosed with the virus
- For eight weeks after a man has traveled to an area where the Zika virus is active
- At all times if a man lives in an area with Zika virus, whether or not symptoms have appeared
4. Wait to get pregnant to prevent harm to your baby. For couples trying to get pregnant, the Zika virus can present a danger to the unborn baby. The CDC recommends that women who have symptoms or who have been exposed to the virus wait at least eight weeks before attempting conception. Men who have been exposed or have symptoms should wait at least six months after symptoms appeared before attempting conception.
5. Abstinence is the only real protection. The only way to be sure not to spread or be exposed to the Zika virus through sexual activities is to abstain until you are sure you do not have the virus. Remember, the virus can remain active in the semen longer than the blood so a blood test alone will not tell you if you or your partner have the Zika virus.
6. Shield yourself from mosquito bites. If you or your partner visit an area where Zika is active, you should take steps to prevent mosquito bites and should continue to do so for three weeks after returning to the United States to prevent infecting other uninfected mosquitoes. Follow these tips from the CDC to prevent mosquito bites, including: wear long sleeves and pants, stay inside with air conditioning, use insect repellants such as DEET, and more.
Scientists are still learning about Zika virus and how it spreads. As they learn more, the CDC’s and other organizations’ guidelines may change or be modified. If you are visiting or in a relationship with someone who has been to an area where the Zika virus is active, you should speak with your doctor for the most up to date information and testing.