Learn about these common Zika virus facts and myths

Check back in with the UPMC HealthBeat blog for news and updates on the Zika virus

So, how much of a threat does the Zika virus really pose to you?

Zika is a viral disease transmitted through mosquitos, and sometimes, sexual contact. The virus has rapidly spread through Central and South America, and garnered much media attention in the process.

Though it generally causes mild symptoms, Zika can sometimes result in serious birth defects, making the threat of Zika potentially troubling for pregnant women or women who hope to become pregnant.

Sorting through reports and articles on Zika can be overwhelming, and some facts about Zika still remain a mystery.

Myth: Zika is a brand new, never-before-seen virus

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Fact: The Zika virus was first detected in Uganda in the 1940s. Zika has been known to the medical community for the past fifty years, though it was assumed to only be mosquito-borne until relatively recently.

Until 2007, only a few dozen cases of Zika had been recorded. By 2015, a multi-country outbreak of the virus thrust it into the international spotlight.

Myth: Zika can be transmitted through contact, much like the common cold

Fact: You can only contract Zika through the bite of an Aedes mosquito, via sexual transmission, or by needle-sticks with infected blood. Casual contact and being near someone with Zika will not result in infection.

Myth: The Zika Virus is in Pennsylvania

A few state residents have been diagnosed with Zika, but none of them contracted the virus via a mosquito in the United States.

One of the species of mosquitoes that can transmit the virus does live in Pennsylvania, but there have been no local Zika transmission from mosquitoes in the United States. It is possible that a domestic transmission via mosquito will occur in the US in the future.

Myth: Everyone who contracts Zika develops symptoms.

Fact: Only one in four people with Zika will develop symptoms, so the majority of those who contract the virus will show no outward signs of it. The most common symptoms of Zika are minor and include:

Learn about common Zika virus symptoms


  • Rash
  • Fever
  • Conjunctivitis (pink eye)
  • Arthralgia (joint pain)

Myth: Men do not have to worry about any lasting, negative effects of Zika

Fact: If you have recently contracted Zika, the virus can remain in your system for up to two months. Men who have contracted the virus should abstain from sex or use condoms for up to six months to avoid spreading the disease to their partner.

Even if your partner is not planning to become pregnant, it is better to be safe rather than risk transmission and the potential of birth defects.

Myth: Zika causes the development of birth defects only in the first trimester of pregnancy.

Fact: Birth defects can develop across gestation, however Richard H. Beigi, MD, vice president of medical affairs and chief medical officer at Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC, confirms the greatest risk is in the first trimester of pregnancy when the baby’s vital structures are forming.

As is common with other infections, only a minority of pregnant women with the Zika virus have babies born with birth defects, though the exact percent is unknown.

Myth: Using insect repellent containing DEET is harmful to pregnant women

Fact: There is no reason to believe that DEET bug spray is risky for pregnant women. Reapply insect repellent as often as needed, especially if you are in an area where Zika is prevalent.

Myth: There is little you can do to protect yourself from Zika

Fact: If you find yourself needing to travel to an area affected by Zika, there are many steps you can take to prevent contracting the virus:

  • Use insect repellent that contains DEET (at least 20 percent recommended)
  • Wear long sleeves and pants
  • Stay in a place that has air conditioning to avoid opening windows
  • Remain indoors as much as possible
  • Get rid of all stagnant water and empty containers that can collect water

Avoid traveling to a Zika-infected area unless you absolutely need to, especially if you are pregnant or plan to become pregnant soon.

About UPMC Magee-Womens

Built upon our flagship, UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital in Pittsburgh, and its century-plus history of providing high-quality medical care for people at all stages of life, UPMC Magee-Womens is nationally renowned for its outstanding care for women and their families.

Our Magee-Womens network – from women’s imaging centers and specialty care to outpatient and hospital-based services – provides care throughout Pennsylvania, so the help you need is always close to home. More than 25,000 babies are born at our network hospitals each year, with 10,000 of those babies born at UPMC Magee in Pittsburgh, home to one of the largest NICUs in the country. The Department of Health and Human Services recognizes Magee in Pittsburgh as a National Center of Excellence in Women’s Health; U.S. News & World Report ranks Magee nationally in gynecology. The Magee-Womens Research Institute was the first and is the largest research institute in the U.S. devoted exclusively to women’s health and reproductive biology, with locations in Pittsburgh and Erie.