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What You Need to Know About the Zika Virus [Updated 2018]

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on January 25, 2016 and was updated in December 2018. Please consult this article: Do You Still Need to Worry About the Zika Virus for 2019? for the latest info.

If you have recently visited or are planning a trip to Southeast Asia, India, Central America, South America, Mexico, Africa, or the Caribbean, make sure you’re following up with the latest on the mosquito-borne Zika virus. There are now close to 100 countries that are declared “at risk for Zika” including some where the disease is endemic. You can view the full list of active transmission countries here.

While the disease’s symptoms are mild, pregnant women who become infected can have babies with birth defects (including microcephaly—being born with a small head and underdeveloped brain) and experience other poor pregnancy outcomes. Currently, the CDC has released travel warnings specific to each country and region regarding Zika, which you can read here; these are classified as Level 2 Warnings, Practice Enhanced Precautions.

Important Information About the Zika Virus

The most common symptoms, according to the CDC, are fever, rash, joint pain, and conjunctivitis, as well as muscle pain and headache. Although hospitalization is uncommon and the symptoms are mild, it is important to seek medical attention if you have these conditions after a trip to affected regions. The CDC warns that these symptoms are similar to that of dengue and chikungunya, so a blood test may be necessary to provide a diagnosis. Zika symptoms can last up to a week, and the time from exposure to symptoms is unknown, but it’s believed to be from anywhere from a few days to a week.

In May of 2015, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) confirmed the first infection in Brazil. Since then, the outbreak there has led to reports of Guillain-Barre syndrome—a rare and potentially life-threatening condition in which the immune system attacks part of the nervous system and patients are left paralyzed for up to several weeks, requiring life support for survival. The link between Guillain-Barre syndrome and the Zika virus is currently being investigated by the CDC, according to the New York Times.

While it is a mosquito-borne virus, the disease can also be spread through sexual contact.

What to Do if You’re Traveling to These Areas

There is currently no vaccine or medication for the virus, so mosquito-bite prevention is key. Using EPA-registered insect repellents, covering exposed skin, wearing light-colored clothing, sleeping inside or in screened-in rooms, and wearing pre-treated clothing and gear can help prevent bites. See more on the CDC’s prevention tips here.

If you are pregnant or considering becoming pregnant, it’s extremely important to discuss your options with your doctor since the virus can spread to the fetus. Because of this and other factors, the CDC recommends that pregnant women do not travel to any area with a Level 2 Warning. The CDC is also warning all pregnant women to be assessed for Zika at every prenatal visit if they have traveled to a country with a Zika travel restriction or if they have had sex with a partner who has traveled or lived in an area with a Zika outbreak.

After Travel to an Active Zika Virus Country

The CDC recommends taking the following precautions after visiting a country with active Zika transmission, such as Anguilla:

If you travel to [Anguilla], you should take steps to prevent mosquito bites for 3 weeks after your trip, even if you don’t feel sick, so that you don’t spread Zika to uninfected mosquitoes that can spread the virus to other people.

If you have visited [Anguilla] and have a pregnant partner, you should either use condoms or not have sex during the pregnancy.

If you are thinking about pregnancy, talk with your health care provider and wait to become pregnant (see ‘Women Trying to Become Pregnant‘ for how long to wait). You also should use condoms after travel to protect your sex partners from Zika even if you are not pregnant or trying to become pregnant.

If you feel sick and think you may have Zika:

  • Talk to your doctor if you develop a fever with a rash, joint pain, or red eyes. Tell him or her about your travel.
  • Take acetaminophen (paracetamol) to relieve fever and pain. Do not take aspirin, products containing aspirin, or other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen.
  • Get lots of rest and drink plenty of liquids.

If you are pregnant:

  • Talk to a doctor or other health care provider after your trip, even if you don’t feel sick. Pregnant travelers returning from [Anguilla], or who have had possible sexual exposure, should be offered testing for Zika virus infection.
  • If you develop a fever with a rash, joint pain, or red eyes, talk to your doctor immediately and tell him or her about your travel or possible sexual exposure.
  • If you do not have symptoms, testing should be offered if you see a health care provider, up to 12 weeks after you return from travel or your last possible sexual exposure.

Since the situation changes frequently, it’s important to check the CDC’s website for the latest developments in these areas.

More from SmarterTravel:

The CDC suggests that travelers who are pregnant or plan to become pregnant consider delaying travel to areas where the Zika virus is spreading. All travelers going to affected areas should consult with a doctor before departure, and should take precautions to avoid mosquito bites while traveling.

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