The Zika virus can cause serious complications during pregnancy and can result in birth defects. Worrying and taking precautions to prevent mosquito bites is one thing but the news that it can be spread through sexual transmission brings a whole new level to the term “safe sex.”
Normally the Zika virus isn’t serious. The main symptoms are fever, rash joint pain and conjunctivitis—which usually last anywhere from a few days to a week. 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, not only about whether they were exposed to the Zika virus but whether their partner was. Without obvious symptoms, this can be difficult.
Up until this year, the Zika virus has been mostly limited to areas in Africa, Southeast Asia, the South Pacific, South America and the Caribbean. If you or your partner traveled to these areas, then it is recommended you take precautions before having sexual relations. As it travels to the United States, and more people from the U.S. travel to the previously infected areas for summer vacations, 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.
Dangers of Zika and 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. 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.
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 6 things you should know about the sexual transmission of the Zika virus:
1. You can get Zika from your male partner. The Zika virus can be spread by men through sexual activities. The Zika virus stays in the semen, although for how long isn’t yet known. It is known 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, however, because it is possible, 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 the virus can be spread by women during sex or sexual activities.
2. The virus can remain active in semen longer than it can in blood. It is not yet known if it can be spread through other bodily fluids, such as saliva or vaginal fluids.
3. 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 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 to prevent against mosquito bites from the CDC, including: wearing 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 guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other health organizations may change or be modified. If you are visiting or in a relationship with someone who has visited an area where the Zika virus is active, you should speak with your doctor for the most up to date information and testing.
For more information on mosquito-borne viruses:
Potential Sexual Transmission of Zika Virus: Emerging Infectious Disease Journal: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Update: Interim Guidance for Health Care Providers Caring for Women of Reproductive Age with Possible Zika Virus Exposure - United States 2016: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Zika and Sexual Transmission: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Eileen Bailey is a freelance health writer. She is the author of Idiot’s Guide to Adult ADHD, Idiot’s Guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Essential Guide to Overcoming Obsessive Love and Essential Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. She can be found on twitter @eileenmbailey and on Facebook at eileenmbailey.
Eileen Bailey is a freelance health writer. She is the author of What Went Right: Reframe Your Thinking for a Happier Now, Idiot’s Guide to Adult ADHD, Idiot’s Guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Essential Guide to Overcoming Obsessive Love, and Essential Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. She can be found on Twitter @eileenmbailey and on Facebook at eileenmbailey.