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Zika virus

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 3 minutes read
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Zika virus disease is an infection that is spread by mosquitoes. Most people who are bitten and catch the Zika virus suffer no symptoms. Any symptoms are usually mild and last for around a week. These are similar to most viral infections: muscle aches, joint aches, headaches, fever, rash, and irritated eyes (conjunctivitis).

Zika virus becomes important only in its threat to pregnant women. An unborn baby can suffer from birth defects, such as having a smaller-than-average head size (microcephaly).

Zika is present in many hot countries. You catch it after a bite from the Aedes mosquito, which may carry the virus. The same mosquitoes can also have dengue and yellow fever, two serious tropical diseases, so there are lots of reasons to take steps to prevent being bitten. Aedes mosquitoes are active during the daytime, with bites most likely in the early morning, afternoon, and evening.

It's worth being well-informed about the risks wherever you are traveling to. Up-to-date Zika virus maps can be found online or at your doctor's practice.

Zika virus is contagious and can be passed on from an infected individual via sex, including vaginal, anal, and oral.

What should I do if I am pregnant or trying to get pregnant?

It’s best to postpone any pregnancy plans if you are traveling to an area with Zika virus, and the risk remains even once you’ve left the area, so avoid getting pregnant for three months after your return, just in case you’ve been bitten. Use regular contraception where possible, such as the daily contraceptive.

If you are already pregnant and traveling to the area is unavoidable, do take all preventative steps to avoid mosquito bites. You can discuss your travel plans with your doctor or midwife. Your doctor may arrange additional ultrasound scans to monitor your baby's growth to ensure any problems are picked up early.

Healthwords pharmacists' top tips

Preventing mosquito bites is the first line of defense if you travel to a part of the world where the Zika virus is endemic. It is advisable to cover up to minimize the amount of skin surface the mosquitos have access to, especially in the early morning and afternoon, and dusk, as well as using a mosquito net for protection at night.

A good insect repellent, ideally containing 30-50% DEET, is preferred for better protection. The use of plug-in repellents indoors may also help. Aerosol spray versions are easy to apply; however, they must be used in a well-ventilated area, and there is often a lot of product waste. A roll-on or a cream product is usually better.

In case you have been bitten, the use of an antihistamine may help to reduce itch and swelling, either a cream if localized or a tablet if you have multiple bites. A mild steroid cream such as hydrocortisone 1% may help if needed.

Always seek local advice when abroad, and be aware of local medical facilities to get the latest advice and help on the ground.

Am I fit for work?

You may be fit for work depending on the severity of your symptoms.

More information

You should speak to your doctor if you are pregnant or thinking of becoming pregnant and are planning to travel to a country or area with current or previous Zika virus risk.

In this situation, if you get symptoms while already in a Zika virus zone or soon after returning, contact your doctor, who may organize a test. Prompt testing while symptomatic gives the best chance of picking up a positive result. A test is unlikely to be offered if you may have been exposed but have no symptoms.

The doctor will ask about your symptoms and examine you if you are comfortable. Depending on the possible diagnosis, blood or urine tests could be carried out, or you may be referred to a specialist department. The doctor may also prescribe some medication to help with your symptoms.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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