This article was last updated on August 2, 2016
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When it comes to the threat of the Zika virus, men need to be aware of risks as well.
The virus is particularly worrisome for pregnant women and their unborn babies — the condition is passed from mother to child during pregnancy and linked to a host of serious birth defects.
But researchers in 2016 discovered men can spread the virus to their sexual partners. In fact, the virus can live in semen longer than blood — up to two months, by some estimates.
“We’ve known about the existence of the Zika virus for 50 or 60 years,” said Richard Beigi, MD, vice president of medical affairs and chief medical officer at Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC. “And it was always thought to be primarily mosquito-borne, with sporadic cases suggesting sexual transmission.”
“With this new outbreak since late 2015, there’s increasing data demonstrating it can also be a sexually transmitted infection. That’s a relatively new confirmatory finding.”
The mosquito-borne Zika virus was first discovered in 1947 in Uganda. By 2016, a Zika outbreak prompted the World Health Organization to declare a “public health emergency of international concern.”
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How Zika Affects Men
Men who have contracted the Zika virus can transmit it to their sexual partners, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Women who are pregnant or soon to become pregnant can in turn pass the virus to their unborn children — and risk the development of several serious birth defects.
It’s not currently known if women can pass Zika to their sexual partners. Dr. Beigi said the risk of the virus is primarily for couples who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant.
“If a woman is not planning to become pregnant and is on highly effective contraceptive, she has little to worry about,” Dr. Beigi said. “This is primarily an issue for pregnant women, people who want to become pregnant, people at risk for unplanned pregnancy, and their sexual partners.”
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Symptoms of Zika in Men
Many people infected with Zika won’t know they have the disease: As many as three out of four will not develop any symptoms, Dr. Beigi said.
The most common Zika symptoms are:
- Joint pain
- Conjunctivitis (red eyes)
Though Zika’s incubation period isn’t known, you should contact a doctor if you develop any of these symptoms within a few weeks of traveling to an area with Zika.
You can learn more about symptoms, treatment, and detection by visiting our guide to the Zika virus.
“It’s really the minority of people who develop symptoms,” Dr. Beigi said. “But if you develop those symptoms you absolutely should get checked.”
Zika Guidelines for Men
In known cases, men who have transmitted Zika have had either vaginal, anal, or oral sex without a condom, according to the CDC. The organization recommends safe sex or sexual abstinence for those who may have been exposed to the virus:
- Men who have been diagnosed with Zika and/or show symptoms should abstain from sex or use condoms for at least six months after symptoms develop.
- If a man has traveled to an area with Zika and does not develop symptoms, couples should consider using condoms or avoiding sex for at least 8 weeks.
- If a couple is living in an area with Zika they should consider using condoms or avoiding sex while Zika is still in the area.
For more than a century, UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital has provided high-quality medical care to women at all stages of life. UPMC Magee is long renowned for its services to women and babies, but also offers a wide range of care to men as well. Nearly 10,000 babies are born each year at Magee, and the hospital’s NICU is one of the largest in the country. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recognizes Magee as a National Center of Excellence in Women’s Health, and the Magee-Womens Research Institute is the largest research institute in the U.S. devoted exclusively to women’s health and reproductive biology.