Last week, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated a guideline that could majorly affect your travel plans and sex life: To prevent spreading Zika, the sexually-transmitted virus carried by certain mosquitoes in at least 86 countries and territories, men who visit Zika-affected areas should avoid unprotected sex and attempts to conceive for just three months after they return—not six months, as per the CDC’s original recommendations. Female travelers should continue to use protection for at least two months after traveling to any of these areas, while pregnant women, who risk transmitting the virus to a fetus and triggering severe fetal brain defects, should continue to avoid these areas altogether.
The CDC issued its initial guidelines around the 2016 Zika outbreak based on what experts knew about Zika transmission through intercourse and oral sex then, according to Dr. Peggy Honein, M.D., director of congenital and developmental disorders at the agency’s National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities. Since then, more information has surfaced.
“The CDC has been continuously reviewing evidence in published literature based on emerging data, which suggests the most likely time to have an infection transmit the virus is in the first month or two after exposure,” Dr. Honein says of the agency’s decision to issue a revision.
Research suggests the virus, which survives longer in areas of the body that are immunologically protected, according to Dr. Honein, remains in semen no longer than 69 days (just over two months) after the onset of Zika symptoms—even though it could affect an infected person’s DNA for longer. “There is so much we still don’t understand about exactly how [transmission] occurs,” she adds, referring to the risk of Zika transmission from females to male partners, and why women only appear to spread the virus for two months after initial exposure.
That said, experts do know that infected women who are pregnant can pass the virus to a fetus, which could bring on serious birth defects such as microcephaly, or smaller than normal head size due to abnormal brain development, and other congenital malformations, according to the CDC.
If You’re Not Pregnant or Trying:
The CDC’s guidelines aren’t just for couples planning to conceive—they’re designed to help all adults sidestep a potentially dangerous virus.
That’s because, while Zika is typically asymptomatic, it can cause up to seven days of symptoms such as fever, rash, conjunctivitis, headaches, and muscle and joint pain, according to the World Health Organization. In rare cases, Zika can lead to temporary paralysis known as Guillain-Barré syndrome, or other neurological issues.
It’s why, if you do choose to travel to an area where Zika-spreading mosquitos roam, take care to avoid infection by wearing insect repellant, long sleeves, and long pants during your trip, the CDC suggests. And when you’re back? Use a barrier method during vaginal, anal, or oral sex for two months if you’re a woman (and three months if you’re a dude)—regardless of whether you experienced any Zika symptoms.
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