This article was last updated August 2, 2016
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The Zika virus, a mosquito-borne illness capturing international attention, can cause severe birth defects and neurological disorders in unborn babies — and anxiety in pregnant women.
The virus, first discovered in 1947, has been found in nearly 50 countries, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). More than 750, mostly travel-related, have been reported in the United States.
So, can you travel? Are you at risk at home? And is the virus a sexually transmitted disease? Stay up-to-date on the latest guidelines on Zika and pregnancy.
What Is the Zika Virus?
The Zika virus is an illness that sometimes causes symptoms similar to Dengue, another mosquito-borne illness.
Most of the time, Zika symptoms last about a week and are mild: Rash, fever, joint pain, and conjunctivitis (red eyes). Many people with Zika do not develop symptoms at all.
During the 2015-2016 international Zika outbreak, the virus has been linked to several serious birth defects, including microcephaly. This makes the virus worrisome for pregnant women, women looking to become pregnant, and their sexual partners.
Find more with our guide to the Zika virus.
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How Pregnant Women Contract Zika
Pregnant women primarily contract the Zika virus through the bite of a mosquito. You are most at risk of contracting Zika when you travel to an affected area. The CDC has recommended travel limitations to about 20 countries and one Miami-area community, Wynwood, where the virus may be circulating.
The virus can also been passed from a man to his sexual partner(s). In turn, a pregnant woman can transmit Zika to her fetus during pregnancy.
Men and women who develop common Zika symptoms, particularly after travel, should be immediately tested.
Richard Beigi, MD, vice president for medical affairs and chief medical officer at Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC, said the highest risk of birth defects appears to occur when mothers are infected early in the pregnancy, when the fetus develops its organs.
RELATED: Video: Your Zika Questions Answered
Preventing the Zika Virus in Pregnant Women
The CDC recommends pregnant women, women looking to become pregnant, and their male sexual partners avoid travel to Zika-affected areas.
People who fall into those categories and must travel should take precautions, including:
- Wearing protective clothing, including long-sleeved shirts and pants.
- Using insect repellent containing DEET. Remember, insect repellent is safe for use by pregnant women.
- Remaining indoors while traveling abroad. Daytime is the most dangerous, according to the CDC, as Zika-carrying mosquitos tend to bite during daylight.
- Mosquito-proofing your home or place of residence. Use screens, windows, and turn on the A/C. Eliminate standing water near your home.
- If your male partner has Zika or has traveled to an area with Zika, you may need to abstain from sex or use condoms for a period of months or weeks. Consult with your health care provider for guidance.
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Treatment for the Zika Virus in Pregnant Women
Pregnant women with Zika symptoms will most likely undergo a blood test to determine if they have the virus. An ultrasound can be performed in the second trimester to determine if the baby has any of the birth defects associated with Zika.
There is no vaccine or cure for the Zika virus. If you have Zika, get plenty of rest, drink fluids, and take acetaminophen or paracetamol to minimize fever and pain. Your health care provider will work closely with you to determine the best course of treatment.
What Is Microcephaly?
When a pregnant woman contracts Zika, she can potentially pass the virus to her unborn child, which can result in several serious birth defects, including microcephaly.
Microcephaly is a condition in which a baby’s head grows much smaller than expected and results in incomplete brain development.
This condition can result in a range of developmental problems and intellectual disabilities, as well as problems with movement, vision, and hearing. Microcephaly is a lifelong condition.
Though microcephaly has been commonly linked to Zika, the virus can lead to other birth defects.
How Does Zika Affect Babies and Young Children?
If contracted after birth, there is no indication that Zika has a long-term effect on babies and children.
Should Pregnant Women Get Tested for Zika?
If you’ve been to an area with Zika and develop any of the tell-tale symptoms, you should be immediately tested, particularly if you are pregnant or plan to become pregnant.
The same is true for your male sexual partner: If he has been to an area with Zika and begins to develop treatment, seek immediate medical care.
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.