Itchy bug bites are the worst. But now there’s another reason you may want to slather on repellant: the mosquito-borne Zika virus, which has been spreading through Latin America and the Caribbean and just showed up in the U.S. On January 11, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed a case in Houston, in someone who had recently traveled abroad.
“Viruses that are transmitted by mosquitoes tend to spread explosively,” says Greg Ebel, PhD, an associate professor in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology, and Pathology at Colorado State University. Zika could become the next West Nile or Chikungunya virus, he says. (According to the CDC, there have been more than 1.7 million suspected cases of Chikungunya in the Americas since late 2013.)
So, is it time to panic? Ebel says he doesn’t see the Zika virus becoming a huge problem in the U.S., where most people are able to stay away from mosquitoes. And Zika isn’t deadly. In fact, the symptoms are usually mild—fever, rash, joint pain, conjunctivitis (red eyes)—and may last up to a week, according to the CDC. The treatment is similar to what you’d do for a cold: get plenty of rest, stay hydrated, and take Tylenol to relieve fever and pain.
Basically, if you're infected, you hang out on the couch for a couple of days. But it’s pregnant women who need to be cautious: The Zika outbreak in Brazil has been linked to microcephaly—a neurodevelopmental disorder in which an infant’s head is smaller than normal. The Pan American Health Organization says cases of microcephaly in Brazil increased 20-fold last year.
Lyle R. Petersen, MD, director of vector-borne diseases at the CDC, told the New York Times earlier this week that the agency had found the Zika virus in four Brazilian babies; two died in the womb, and two had microcephaly and died shortly after birth.
The CDC hasn’t yet advised pregnant women not to travel to Brazil or anywhere else the virus is present. But the agency may issue a warning soon, according to the New York Times.
Ebel thinks it would be a good idea. “The bottom line is you should keep away from mosquitoes,” he explains. “Anyone’s risk of getting Zika is miniscule. But if you’re pregnant, why would you go to an area where the virus is spreading like crazy and there’s a small chance of getting an infection that results in a birth defect?”
Update (Jan. 16, 2016): Late Friday U.S. health officials issued a travel warning for Puerto Rico and 13 Latin American and Caribbean countries. The CDC urged pregnant women to postpone trips to these areas that have been exposed to the virus, and recommended that women who are considering getting pregnant consult with their doctor before traveling
If you are headed to a place known to have Zika, preventing mosquito bites is key. That means using bug sprays and creams containing the ingredients DEET, picaridin, IR3535, oil of lemon eucalyptus or PMD, per the CDC. (All are safe to use when pregnant, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.) If you opt for DEET, the CDC recommends products with concentrations between 20% and 50%. Also: Try to keep your skin covered up, with long-sleeved shirts, pants, hats, and boots. And sleep under a mosquito net if your accommodations aren’t air-conditioned or screened in.
These measures will help protect you—and potentially your partner too. According to a surprising 2011 case study published in Emerging Infectious Diseases, the Zika virus may also be sexually transmitted. Bring on the bug spray.