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Everything You Need to Know About the Zika Virus

Everyone is talking about the Zika virus, but should you be worried? How can you best protect yourself if you're pregnant?

By
Sanaz Majd, MD
4-minute read
Episode #207

If you are pregnant or planning on being this year, you likely have some unsettling feelings due to the Zika virus outbreaks all over the world.

About once or twice a year, another infectious disease agent seems to make headlines. In the recent several years we’ve covered nasty issues, such as Ebola, Enterovirus-D68, Lyme disease, and Hepatitis C. Now the new buzz is surrounding the Zika virus, first reported in Brazil in May of 2015, which is causing fetal brain abnormalities in pregnant women infected with the virus.

Many thought Zika was only risky to those living in endemic areas with a particular species of mosquitos. But now a new report of a sexually transmitted case in Dallas, Texas has once again thrown this frightening bug back into the U.S. media.

What is this mystifying Zika virus? How is it spread? How can you protect yourself and your loved ones from it?

What Is the Zika Virus?

The Zika virus, like several other nasty organisms including Dengue and Chikungunya, is spread to humans via the infected bite of the Aedes species mosquito. These mosquitos originally contract the virus from an infected human, then becoming infected themselves, and going on to spread Zika to other humans via future bites. This is the most common method of transmission of the Zika virus. However, there have been less frequent reports of spread through both blood transfusions and sexual contact with those infected.

After the bite of this particular mosquito, about 20% of those infected become ill—not all. Then, within a week or two after this bite, symptoms begin to erupt and often include a constellation of the following:

  • Fever
  • Muscle pain
  • Joint pain
  • Rash
  • Pink eye

Complications of Zika Virus

Fortunately, most people who display symptoms of the infection have a mild illness that typically lasts a week and then self-resolves—not unlike the common cold and flu viruses that most of us experience every year.

However, there has been a link between this virus and a brain abnormality called “microcephaly” in the fetuses of pregnant women exposed to this virus.  “Micro” means “small,” and “cephaly” refers to the brain. Therefore, “microcephaly” is a congenital abnormality that reflects an abnormally small brain, sometimes not compatible with life, causing death in the womb or thereafter.

There have also been reports of a neurological complication, called Guillain Barre Syndrome in those with Zika virus, regardless of pregnancy status. This is a disorder in which the immune system attacks the nervous system, causing paralysis from the lower extremities that spread upward through the body.

Considering these frightening consequences, how can you protect yourself against Zika?

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Medical Disclaimer
Please note that all content here is strictly for informational purposes only. This content does not substitute any medical advice, and does not replace any medical judgment or reasoning by your own personal health provider. Please always seek a licensed physician in your area regarding all health related questions and issues.

About the Author

Sanaz Majd, MD

Dr. Sanaz Majd is a board-certified Family Medicine physician who graduated from Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia. Her special interests are women's health and patient education.