It may sound like the plot to a bad Michael Crichton book, but mosquitos carrying the dreaded Zika virus have officially arrived in Florida, and infected men are now spreading it through their sperm. Yes, the virus is this year's breakout STD, and not everyone has received the proper sex ed on how to stay safe.
While much of the media coverage of Zika has focused on the danger it poses for pregnant women—the virus has been linked to severe birth defects—it's hardly just a women's issue. Men's role in preventing the spread is essential. While both men and women can contract Zika and not show any symptoms, the virus can remain in semen for at least six months—which means guys are likely spreading it without even knowing it.
So what can men do to keep their sexual partners safe? Here are a few simple steps.
The most common symptoms of Zika are fever, rash, joint pain, and red eyes. Of course, these are also symptoms of the common cold and the flu, so how do you know when to get tested?
First, assess how long you’ve had your symptoms—which tend to last longer than those for these other common ailments, explains Dr. Robert Segal, a physician in Manhattan and the founder of the medical testing service LabFinder.com, who has treated patients with Zika. If your symptoms last longer than seven days, consider getting tested.
That said: Be logical. Do you live in or have you recently traveled to a region where the virus is prevalent—or have you had sex without someone who has? Most cases of Zika in this country have been "travel related," meaning people visited areas where the virus was prevalent (such as Central and South America), contracted the virus there, then returned to the states. However, if you live in a state like Florida, where locally transmitted cases of Zika have been reported, and you have symptoms, you should get tested whether you've traveled or not.
If you’ve traveled to a region where Zika is common, you should get tested within two to 12 weeks of returning, no matter what, says Segal. "Not everyone who has Zika has symptoms. That’s the group that is the unknown," he explains. “They go through life and they never get tested and they pass it on through sex—oral, vaginal, anal, even through sex toys."
For people living in the areas of South Florida where locally transmitted cases have been reported, you may want to get tested if you get bitten by a mosquito or have sex with someone who could have the virus—just to be safe.
Remember, once you become infected with the virus, you yourself become a carrier—so not only can you transmit it through sex, but if a mosquito bites you, it can then theoretically pass it on to the next person it bites. “We the humans become carriers and create a whole slew of flying objects that infect others,” Segal says.
Unfortunately, at this point, there is no cure for the virus—so if you get diagnosed with the virus, the best way to limit transmission is to wear a lot of mosquito repellant. And wear condoms.
Most sexually transmitted cases of Zika have involved an infected man passing it to an uninfected woman, but researchers have reported at least once instance of an infected woman passing it to a man.
Because Zika can live in a man's semen for at least six months, practicing safe sex is key. Either use a condom—even for oral sex, says Segal—or abstain from all activities involving sexual fluids until you know for sure if you have the virus.
If you test positive for Zika—or think you might have it—then you should be extra careful, says Segal, especially if you and your partner are looking to have kids. Experts recommend waiting at least six months before attempting to conceive, since the virus has been linked to birth defects including a condition called microcephaly, in which babies are born with abnormally small heads and severe fetal brain defects.
Women who have tested positive for Zika should wait at least two months after symptoms begin before trying to conceive, according to the CDC guidelines. That said, much is still unknown about whether and how long Zika might stay in a woman's body, so it might be prudent to wait longer, says Segal. If you find yourself in this situation, talk to your doctor about when it’s safe to start trying to have a baby.
If you think you need to be tested for Zika, you should be able to find a doctor's office or lab near you that offers the service. You'll likely be asked to give a blood and urine sample.
In order to make it easier for people to get tested, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has issued Emergency Use Authorization for two types of nascent Zika diagnostic tests: The first is a screener that can detect the virus if less than two weeks have passed since symptoms first appeared. If it’s been more than two weeks, or the screener comes back positive, it’s necessary to use the second test, which detects Zika virus IgM antibodies.
As for a vaccine—well, there isn't one yet. While the National Institutes of Health have launched a clinical trial to investigate one, even if it works, it likely wouldn't become commercially available for quite some time. And unfortunately, for those who have already been diagnosed with the virus, there's not much available in terms of treatment. "There is not specific medicine," says Segal. "General treatment is rest, fluids, and Tylenol to reduce fever and pain."
For everyone else, remember the golden words: Don't be a fool and wrap your tool.
Taryn Hillin is Fusion's love and sex writer, with a large focus on the science of relationships. She also loves dogs, Bourbon barrel-aged beers and popcorn — not necessarily in that order.