With over 800 confirmed cases of Zika now being reported in the United States, the threat is becoming a lot more real than it seemed when the virus first garnered attention back in January. U.S. residents are now worried about catching the virus themselves, and wondering if the Zika rash is contagious. The good news is that even though the virus can present with a rash, it can't be transmitted that way. Zika is still primarily transmitted by infected Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, and can only be transmitted person-to-person in utero or through sexual contact.
Rash is just one of the symptoms of the Zika virus; it can also cause fever, joint pain, conjunctivitis, muscle pain, and headache. But most people infected with Zika won't show any symptoms, and may never even know that they were infected. In rare cases, Zika is thought to lead to Guillain-Barré syndrome, which can cause muscle weakness and paralysis, but in otherwise healthy adults, Zika infection is usually quite mild. The real danger comes from Zika infection during pregnancy, which can lead to miscarriage, microcephaly, or other birth defects. Zika infection during pregnancy doesn't always spell disaster; many infected women have given birth to healthy babies. According to NBC News, researchers recently announced their intention to follow 10,000 pregnant women in order to learn more about how Zika can affect fetuses.
The simplest way to prevent Zika infection is to avoid affected areas if possible (at this point, that means nearly all of South and Central America, the Caribbean, and Mexico, and could eventually include the American South). Those in affected areas should protect themselves against mosquito bites by using air conditioners, window screens, bed netting, long sleeves and pants, and of course, insect repellent. People who have contracted Zika should still do all they can to prevent mosquito bites, because if they're bitten and the same mosquito goes on to bite another person, that person could then be infected.
As far as Zika transmission from a human goes, there isn't as much risk. The rash itself won't spread the virus; as far as we know, it's only spread via placenta or semen. That means that pregnancies in women with (or at risk for) Zika should be closely monitored by a physician, and anyone having sex (any kind of sex) with a Zika-infected man (or a man at risk of infection) should be using condoms the right way, every time. At least we can all still shake hands without fear.