In the summer of 2015, travelers and Americans in warm climates suddenly had a new peril to face. The Zika virus began making headlines as outbreaks spread from Brazil and into Caribbean and began to work their way northward into the United States. While many people were understandably concerned, the general public did not necessarily understand the risks associated with the virus, today you can learn more about how to keep yourself and your family safe.

What Is Zika?

Zika is a virus that is transmitted primarily by the Aedes mosquito. First identified in 1947 in monkeys in Uganda, it was observed in humans in both Uganda and Tanzania by 1952. In the decades since, Zika has been found throughout Africa, Asia, the Pacific, and the Americas. This virus was moderately rare i In the 20th century. But by 2007, the first widespread outbreak was recorded.

In 2015, a large outbreak of Zika was associated with a large number of birth defects. The virus spread from there through North and South America. The outbreak was declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern in February 2017.

While most infections occurred while traveling to other parts of the world, around 300 were contracted in the U.S., mostly in Florida and Texas. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) keeps track of areas with high Zika risk and makes recommendations for travelers planning to visit these areas. Over 5,000 cases have now been detected in the United States.

How Is Zika Transmitted?

This virus is transmitted by mosquitoes. However, transmission is also possible during unprotected sex even if the individual does not show Zika symptoms. It can also be transmitted from a mother to her unborn baby during pregnancy or at the time of birth.

There is also a small risk of Zika being transmitted during blood transfusions. At this time, travelers who have visited a country with a Zika outbreak are barred from donating blood for a period of time. All blood collected in areas of the U.S. with Zika risk is tested for the virus. There have been no recorded cases of this virus in the U.S. that are related to blood transfusions.

Who Is Most at Risk?

While Zika is a mild infection for most people, it can be very risky for pregnant women. In the US, one in 10 women with confirmed Zika infections had babies with virus-related birth defects. These include microcephaly, a condition in with improper brain development leads to an unusually small head. A number of fetuses die in utero when infected. In other cases, they are born with disabilities requiring lifelong care.

It is possible that people with compromised immune systems may be more susceptible to Zika and may have worse outcomes if they contract the virus. Two patients in Colombia who died after contracting it were confirmed to have types of leukemia. But researchers warn that data on Zika and immunocompromised people is still sparse. Studies of dengue, another mosquito-transmitted virus, indicate that people with compromised immune systems are as likely to get the virus as the general population.

Zika has been connected to Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS), a disease that affects the nervous system. It appears that older individuals are at higher risk for this complication. This syndrome involves the immune system attacking the peripheral nervous system. Symptoms start with weakness and tingling in the legs. Over time, muscles may cease to function, leaving the individual paralyzed.

What Are the Symptoms of Zika Infection?

Around 80% of people who are infected with Zika never show any symptoms at all.

In most cases among those who do, the symptoms are similar to those of other viruses transmitted by mosquitoes (collectively known as arboviruses). These include:

  • rashes
  • fever
  • conjunctivitis (redness and irritation in and around the eyes)
  • muscle pain
  • joint pain
  • headache
  • malaise

The incubation period for Zika is not yet clear, although it is suspected to be a few days. Most symptoms of Zika are mild and last from two to seven days. Most people will be able to treat them with rest at home. Be sure to consume plenty of fluids, as you would when ill with any fever-causing illness. There is usually no need for medical intervention unless you may be pregnant or at risk of infecting a pregnant partner. However, if symptoms persist for more than 10 days or become serious, consult a medical professional. They will be able to determine whether you are infected with Zika and your best path of treatment.

While most Zika cases are mild and go away quickly, a small number of cases have led to Guillain-Barré syndrome. There is currently no cure for GBS. However, treatments can ease symptoms and reduce its severity.

What Is Being Done About Zika?

A number of states are engaging in efforts to reduce the rate of Zika transmission. Florida, for instance, is fighting the virus with specially-altered mosquitoes. These mosquitoes carry a bacterium that will stop the mosquitoes from breeding. Infected males fertilize eggs, which, due to the bacteria, will fail to hatch. Of these infected mosquitoes, 20,000 have been released.

The CDC has also offered states funding to track Zika-related birth defects. However, funding for this program may expire in July 2017.

A Zika vaccine is currently being tested. So far, trials involving monkeys and mice suggest that the vaccine can protect against transmission.

What Can You Do to Protect Yourself?

While institutions and governments do what they can to cut the numbers of Zika-infected mosquitoes, you can do a lot on your end to cut your chances of infection as well as your chances of unwanted complications.

The first step in prevention is to avoid mosquito bites. When you are outdoors, wear light-colored clothing that covers your arms and legs to keep mosquitoes off you.

Mosquito repellent that contains DEET, icaridin or IR3535 can help when used according to the manufacturers’ instructions. DEET can be found in a number of concentrations. The higher the concentration, the longer protection will last.

Many mosquitoes attack at night. When sleeping with windows open, make sure that all screens are in good condition. Close doors quickly when you step outdoors. If you find that mosquitoes still get inside, consider placing a mosquito net over your bedding.

If you entertain outdoors, a mosquito gazebo is a good investment. These gazebos are screened to keep unwanted insects out and make your time outdoors more pleasant.

A number of mosquito traps are currently on the market. Some of the most effective ones use propane to make CO2, which attracts mosquitoes. These can eliminate mosquitoes from up to ¾ of an acre.

You can also keep mosquitoes at bay by eliminating their breeding sites. These insects like to lay their eggs in standing water. Sources like buckets, pots, gutters and puddles should be regularly dumped or cleaned. If you have a pool or jacuzzi that is not used often, treat the water with larvicide to stop growth of new mosquitoes.

Since Zika can also be sexually transmitted, it is important to use barrier method protection such as condoms and dental dams during sexual activity. This virus is a risk even in monogamous relationships, since the initial infection may come from a mosquito. Experts recommend that couples who are neither pregnant nor attempting to become pregnant should either use condoms or abstain from sex for at least six months after a male partner has traveled to a Zika area and at least eight weeks after a female partner has.

Couples who live in or visit an area where Zika may be a risk and who are considering a pregnancy should first consult a doctor.

Couples who live in or visit an area where Zika may be a risk and who are considering a pregnancy should first consult a doctor. They should be extremely careful about the precautions that can prevent Zika infection. It may be advisable to wait many weeks or months after traveling to a Zika-risk area before attempting to conceive. Expectant couples in an area with a Zika risk should use condoms for the entire length of the pregnancy.

While Zika is not serious for most individuals, those who are vulnerable the the most dangerous complications can cut their risk with common sense precautions. Carefully protect yourself against mosquito bites every day when you are in areas where this virus is most common. Take precautions to avoid sexual transmission of the disease when you or your partner may be exposed. Through these simple precautions, you can cut your chances of Zika and keep yourself safe.