What Older Adults Need to Know about Zika
There’s been a lot of news about how the Zika virus affects pregnant women and newborns, but not so much about older adults. The good news is that for adults who aren’t pregnant or trying to conceive, Zika is often more of a nuisance than a threat. However, the rare complications of Zika do seem to hit older patients harder. Here’s what you need to know about protecting yourself from Zika.
Where is Zika virus found?
The current outbreak in the Americas began in Brazil in 2015. At this writing, South Florida, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands have Zika-carrying mosquitoes, as does every country in the Americas south of Canada, except for Chile and Uruguay. There’s also a Zika outbreak in the South Pacific and in the Cape Verde Islands off the western coast of Africa.
How does Zika affect older adults?
In most cases, Zika patients don’t realize they’re sick or experience “fever, rash, joint pain, and red eyes,” along with muscle pain and headaches, for up to a week. Some older adults develop Guillain-Barre syndrome as a complication. Guillain-Barre is serious, causing whole-body paralysis that can last several weeks. In very rare cases, Guillain-Barre patients die or suffer permanent damage, outcomes doctors say are more likely among older patients.
Women past childbearing age who contract Zika are spared the worst of its damage: miscarriages or babies born with microcephaly. However, Zika-infected men of any age whose partners are or might become pregnant must take special care to avoid infecting their partner and her fetus. It’s best to talk to your doctor in person to review the most up-to-date recommendations on Zika and pregnancy.
Precautions to take when you travel to areas with Zika
Public health experts say people visiting and living in places with Zika should use EPA-registered insect sprays on their skin, treat their clothes with permethrin spray, and sleep under mosquito netting or close the windows and use an air conditioner at night. You can find an interactive tool to help you choose an effective mosquito repellant here.
Precautions to take with close contacts who’ve visited Zika areas
Because Zika can be sexually transmitted, doctors urge caution after travel to Zika areas, especially if there’s any possibility of pregnancy. The CDC recommends that couples who are concerned about Zika transmission but are not pregnant or trying should balance the risks of infection against the generally “mild nature of the illness for many people” when deciding whether to use condoms or abstain from sex.
So far, there’s been only one case in the US of non-sexual person-to-person Zika transmission. In Utah, a senior who caught Zika abroad apparently transmitted the disease to a relative who was caring for him. The man later died. Health investigators said he had an unusually large amount of the virus in his bloodstream, and they are unsure how the transmission took place.
What to do if you think you have Zika
If you live in an area with Zika-infected mosquitoes or recently visited a Zika-infested place, call your doctor if you develop the fever, rash, and red eyes that are symptoms of Zika. If already you know you are infected, go to the emergency room if you develop a high fever that doesn’t respond to medication, because older adults are at greater risk of dehydration from fever. Seek help right away if you develop symptoms of Guillain-Barre syndrome (tingling and numbness that starts in one part of the body and spreads quickly, shortness of breath when you’re resting, or choking on saliva).