What is the Zika virus, and should I be worried?

The Zika virus is a virus that is transmitted by mosquitoes. Most people infected with the Zika virus have no signs or symptoms, while others may report mild fever, rash and joint pain. Other signs and symptoms may include headache, red eyes (conjunctivitis) and a general feeling of discomfort. Signs and symptoms of Zika usually begin two to seven days after being bitten by an infected mosquito.

The Zika virus has been linked to miscarriage. The Zika virus can cause microcephaly, a potentially fatal congenital brain condition, in newborn infants if the mother contracts the virus during her pregnancy. It can also cause congenital Zika syndrome, which includes many birth defects, such as severe microcephaly with a partly collapsed skull, and brain and eye damage. The Zika virus may also cause other neurological disorders such as Guillain-Barre syndrome.

No vaccine exists to prevent the Zika virus, and there's no effective antiviral treatment. Treatment is aimed at relieving symptoms with rest, fluids and medications — such as acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) — to relieve joint pain and fever.

Where is it found?

The Zika virus was first identified in the Zika Forest in Uganda in 1947. Outbreaks have since been reported in southeastern and southern Asia, the Pacific Islands and the Americas.

The Zika virus is transmitted mainly by the aedes species mosquito, which can be found throughout the world. For this reason, it's likely that outbreaks will continue to spread to new countries.

How concerned should I be?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that all pregnant women avoid traveling to areas where there is an outbreak of the Zika virus. The virus may cause severe complications in newborn infants if the mother becomes infected with the Zika virus during her pregnancy.

If you're traveling to an area with known outbreaks of the Zika virus, take precautions. Preventive measures are focused on protection from infected mosquitoes. Use insect repellent containing DEET or picaridin, wear long sleeves and pants treated with permethrin, and stay indoors or in screened-in places when possible.

Most people recover fully, with symptoms resolving in about a week.

When should I see a doctor?

See your doctor if you think you or a family member may have the Zika virus, especially if you have recently traveled to an area where there's an ongoing outbreak. The CDC has blood tests to look for the Zika virus or similar viruses such as dengue or chikungunya viruses, which are spread by the same type of mosquitoes.

You may want to talk to your doctor if there's a possibility you could become pregnant and either you or your partner plan to travel to areas where Zika occurs. Your doctor may suggest that you use condoms or avoid sexual contact for up to a few months after travel.


Pritish K. Tosh, M.D.

Oct. 09, 2020 See more Expert Answers