While women of childbearing age rightfully worry about getting Zika, the mosquito-borne virus linked to microcephaly and other severe birth defects, many men have been left to wonder if they should be worried, too, and the answer is yes.
Researchers now know that Zika is not a gender-specific illness, and that men should be just as cautious as women when it comes to protecting themselves, and others, from the virus.
Men and Zika
The biggest threat Zika poses for a man's health lies in his ability to, unknowingly, transmit the virus through sex, says infectious disease specialist David Itkin, MD, of Portsmouth Regional Hospital in New Hampshire. In fact, sexual transmission is one of the most unique things about the virus.
"[A man] could've traveled to Brazil, or another Zika area, gotten a symptomatic or asymptomatic infection, come back, and now he poses a risk to a [pregnant] woman...because he could transmit the virus to her sexually," Dr. Itkin explains. "This is a woman who may never have been out of the country, never traveled to an area where Zika is circulating."
Researchers still don't know how long Zika can remain in semen, which means doctors can't say how long a man is contagious. Worst-case scenario, the man has no symptoms and is contagious for months without ever knowing he was infected, says Itkin.
This is worrisome because once infected, the man can potentially transmit the virus to a woman who, if pregnant, could then transmit Zika to her developing baby.
"The man could be a symptom-free carrier of Zika and, indirectly, cause a congenital defect," he says.
Outside of sexual transmission, says Itkin, the virus itself doesn't pose a big risk to a man's health. If he has symptoms, such as fever or rash, they are typically mild.
Zika has also been linked to Guillain-BarrÌÎå© syndrome (GBS), a disease of the nervous system that can cause muscle weakness or temporary paralysis, but the risk appears to be very small, and, Itkin says, many other viruses can cause the same problems.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) it's still not clear if women can spread Zika to their sex partners.
Based on what we know now, a woman may potentially transmit Zika to a male partner through blood exposure during sex as long as the virus remains in her blood, which is around 10 days or less, says Itkin.
Also, according to the CDC, it is unclear if Zika can be spread from other body, including saliva and vaginal fluids, during oral sex.
What This Means
There's still a lot left to learn about Zika. Officials at the CDC are calling the latest developments just the tip of the iceberg.
What is clear is that doctors are going to have to start talking to their male patients about the disease.
"As we're seeing more and more men traveling to Zika areas, we're going to have to have that talk with them," says Itkin. "You went on this trip. You were fine and healthy and didn't get sick. You don't even think you saw a single mosquito. That's all well and good, but there's still a chance, and a chance you need to take seriously, that you could've become exposed and may ... be contagious via sex for months to come."
Protecting Yourself from Zika
- Both men and women should take precautions against mosquito bites, especially when in an area with known Zika transmission, by using mosquito repellents with DEET, covering up when you are outside, keeping property free of standing water and ensuring window screens fit properly.
- Women who are pregnant should avoid traveling to known Zika areas.
- Women should wait at least eight weeks after potential exposure to try to get pregnant.
- Men who traveled to a Zika area and had no apparent symptoms of the virus should wait at least eight weeks to have unprotected sex. If the man had possible symptoms, he should wait six months before having unprotected sex.
- If a man lives in an area where Zika is currently being spread and the man doesn't have symptoms, the CDC recommends not having unprotected sex as long as Zika remains in the area.
- Men who live in or have traveled to an area with Zika, and are worried about sexual transmission, should wear condoms every time they have sex, including during oral and vaginal sex, and especially if a partner is pregnant.
- The best way to avoid transmission of Zika to a developing baby is to not have sex during the pregnancy.