8 Ways to Reduce Your Risk of Getting Zika

8 Ways to Reduce Your Risk of Getting Zika

A few common-sense moves can help you steer clear of the harmful virus.

By now, unless you’ve been living under a (mosquito-free) rock, you’ve likely heard of the Zika virus, the risks associated with pregnant women getting Zika and children being born with severe birth defects.

Microcephaly, a condition in which a child is born with an under-developed brain and skull, has been the condition getting the most attention: One study suggests the rate can be as high as 13% of children born to women infected with Zika while pregnant.

The rates of other birth defects (such as defects in the urinary or gastrointestinal tracts) could be even higher. In children and adults, Zika also appears to be linked to Guillain-Barre Syndrome, a neurological condition that can temporarily cause weakness and even paralysis.

So what can you do?

Everyone needs to do their part to reduce the risk of Zika. But if you’re a considering pregnancy in the next few months, whether you’re a woman or a partner, you really need to pay attention.  Until a Zika vaccine is available, preventing the mosquito bite in the first place is the only defense we have. 

Prevent mosquito breeding
1. Dump (and scrub away) standing water. Female Aedes mosquitos (the ones that carry Zika) lay hundreds of eggs at a time, along the walls of containers filled with water. That includes potted plants, swimming pools with inadequate filters, toys or even trash containers. It takes about a week for eggs to hatch, so once a week, dump out these containers and scrub their sides to remove any eggs that may remain.

2. Protect the septic tank. Apparently, mosquitos like to lay eggs in septic tanks, too. (After I learned this, I was so grossed out.) But we need to take this preventive step for all mosquitos, whether or not Zika is a threat. Make sure you don’t have any cracks in or spaces between blocks covering your septic tanks. You should also put screen covers—mesh wires too small for mosquitos to pass through—over any ventilation pipes coming from the tank. Have an abandoned septic tank? Fill it in with dirt.

Keep bugs out of your home (and stay away from theirs)
3. Ensure all windows have intact screens or use the AC. Whenever Zika is a threat, it's not the time to leave windows wide open, curtains billowing in the wind.  Aedes mosquitos bite during the day and in the evening, so make sure screens are intact.  A cool, air-conditioned house will also be unfriendly to mosquitos, which prefer warm temperatures. 

4. Watch your travel. In years past, the CDC has reported some cases of local mosquito-borne transmission of Zika in Florida and Texas—in other words, cases of Zika that presumably were contracted from Aedes mosquitoes in the U.S. Those numbers, though, are relatively small, totaling 224 cases in 2016 and 7 cases in 2017. That means that the bulk of reported cases have been in travelers returning from affected areas. The CDC therefore recommends that people considering getting pregnant in the near future should stay away from the major areas of the world with ongoing risk of Zika. Those regions include parts of Central and South America, the Pacific Islands, the Caribbean, Asia and Africa. Check out the CDC's Zika travel page for up-to-date info. 

5. Practice safe sex. Don’t have unprotected intercourse for at least 6 months with a male who has traveled to one of these parts of the world. According to the CDC, Zika can be passed via sexual transmission.

Keep the bugs from biting you
6. Repel, repel, repel! The CDC recommends using insect repellents registered with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that contain one of the following active ingredients: DEET, picaridin, IR3535, oil of lemon eucalyptus, para-menthane-diol or 2-undecanone. The CDC notes that these ingredients are safe and effective for pregnant and breast-feeding women when used as directed.

7. Roll out the anti-Zika wardrobe. Yes, I said it. Those funny-looking repellent clothes you’ve seen in outdoors catalogs? You'll probably want to stock up. Wear long sleeves and pants pre-treated with permethrin, or treat your own clothes with permethrin before wearing. (Just don't apply permethrin to skin, only to clothing). 

8. Combine defenses. According to the CDC, the best repellent protection is a combination of the above. Wear long-sleeved shirt and pants treated with permethrin and then apply insect repellent to any exposed areas of skin. See the CDC website for instructions on applying repellent to children.

Medically reviewed in February 2019.

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