If you're a pregnant woman living in one of the 30 states known to be home to the Aedes aegypti mosquito — aka the kind that can carry the Zika virus — then you might be feeling uncertain about how to keep your baby safe. After all, even though there is still a lot that is still unknown about the virus, what is known, according to the Centers for Disease Control, is that pregnant women who become infected with the Zika virus can pass it on to their fetuses, where it can can cause a severe form of the birth defect microcephaly, which restricts brain growth and can lead to serious impairments. Travel advisories for pregnant women have been established, but can you get Zika from pregnancy sex?
According to the CDC, Zika can most definitely be sexually transmitted, specifically from an infected male to his partners. And, while so far, in cases of confirmed sexual transmission of the virus, the men who passed it on actively had symptoms of Zika, it is also possible (though not yet proven) that it could be transmitted sexually by infected men who experience no symptoms whatsoever. Since there is currently no vaccine, or any surefire way for pregnant women (or anyone, really) to ensure they won't get Zika, any method to reduce the risk of contracting the virus is important — including, potentially, abstaining from sexual activity.
For most people, Zika isn't a significant threat. According to the Daily Mail, the majority of those who contract Zika have no symptoms, and those who do usually experience minor ones, like fever, rash, or body aches. But the danger is that the effects of Zika can be devastating for babies in utero, which is why Zika is such a huge concern. While officials have recommended that pregnant women avoid areas where Zika-carrying mosquitoes may be present, studies have now shown that it's also entirely possible for a woman who has never been to a known Zika area to contract the virus through sexual contact, as the virus can exist in semen, and remain there for several weeks after the man has been infected.
So what can pregnant women do to protect themselves and their babies now that the link between Zika and sexual transmission has been established? The CDC says using protection (and using it correctly) is key, for any type of sexual activity, including vaginal, anal, and oral sex. But, as with any sexually transmitted disease or infection, the only surefire way to ensure you don't contract Zika is to avoid having sex entirely.
Different risk factors affect how long couples should adhere to these extra precautions about sex, and the CDC's guideline is as follows:
Couples who include a man who has been diagnosed with Zika or had symptoms of Zika should consider using condoms or not having sex for at least 6 months after symptoms begin. This includes men who live in and men who traveled to areas with Zika.
Couples who include a man who traveled to an area with Zika but did not develop symptoms of Zika should consider using condoms or not having sex for at least 8 weeks after their return.
Couples who include a man who lives in an area with Zika but has not developed symptoms of Zika should consider using condoms or not having sex while there is Zika in the area.
Currently, the CDC's guidelines extend only "to people whose male sex partners live in or have traveled to an area with Zika transmission," so right now that means that most couples in the U.S. are likely to be at a low risk for sexual transmission. But, with the Zika virus expected to hit the U.S. this summer, according to TIME, it's likely that more couples will be at risk for sexual transmission of the virus.
Thanks to the ease with which the virus can be spread, the severe complications it can cause, and the difficulty governments are having trying to control it, there's no doubt that the Zika virus is a significant threat. And with mosquito season in the U.S. on the horizon, prevention will become extremely important for pretty much everyone — especially women with babies on the way.