Nearly 40 million Americans travel to countries affected by the Zika virus every year, many of whom are senior citizens just looking to enjoy a warmer climate for a little while. If you or a loved one will be traveling to an area affected by Zika, it’s worth understanding the risks, as well as the precautions you can take to protect yourself. While most of the attention in the media has been focused on the threat Zika faces to pregnant women, recent research has made it clear that Zika may be almost just as dangerous for the elderly.
What Is the Zika Virus?
The Zika virus is spread by mosquito bites. While there are over three dozen nations in the Caribbean and Latin America that are known to host Zika, there are only a handful of countries where Zika is considered a significant threat. The CDC has issued a travel alert identifying the 14 most at-risk places, including: Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Martinique, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Suriname, Venezuela, and Puerto Rico.
Unfortunately, there’s not that much we know about the Zika virus. While Zika can be transmitted by mosquitoes to a human, as well as through sexual contact and blood transfusion, we are unsure if there are other ways it can be transmitted, through saliva although traces of the disease can be found in fluids such as saliva, urine, and breast milk We also aren’t certain of all the different ways that Zika can be spread from someone who has it. What we do know is that about 80% of people who contract Zika will have no symptoms. For the unlucky 20% who do, Zika is not totally unlike the flu. Typical symptoms include headaches, joint aches, conjunctivitis, rash, and fever, usually lasting around a week.
Another thing we understand is that Zika and older adults is a more dangerous combination. One reason why is Guillain-Barre syndrome, a possible complication of Zika that’s far more likely to occur in older adults. With Guillain-Barre, the body’s immune system attacks the nervous system, leading to temporary muscle paralysis, vertigo, and hearing loss.
Seniors should also take special care with the virus since the immune system weakens over time. Even if you’re not traveling where you may be exposed to the Zika virus, it’s never a bad idea to boost your immune system through a diet rich in nutrients, regular exercise, and a good night’s sleep.
Protecting Yourself from Transmission
There is currently no vaccine for Zika, which means the best protection you have is to avoid mosquito bites whenever you’re traveling abroad.
- If at all possible, wear long-sleeved clothing, pants, and an EPA-registered insect repellant. The most effective insect repellants typically contain either picaridin, DEET, oil of lemon eucalyptus, or PMD. For full effect, repellants should be replaced every four or five hours.
- Travelers should stay in locations with screens on windows and doors, as well as specifically seek out air conditioning. That’s because mosquitos prefer hot, humid environments, and are better equipped to finding humans to feed on in those conditions.
Beware of Dengue Fever Virus
If you return from traveling abroad and suddenly feel unwell, it’s critically important to check in with your doctor. Zika is a serious disease, but it’s only one of the many different types of diseases that you can contract from mosquitos in tropical climates. Dengue has almost identical symptoms to Zika, including joint and muscle pain, headaches, fever and a rash. Dengue fever, like Zika is also transmitted by mosquito bites, but may be fatal if left untreated.
It’s not worth canceling your travel plans over Zika, especially if you have the opportunity to see the world and enjoy tropical climates. But when you travel abroad, a little caution can help ensure the only things you bring back from your tropical vacation are souvenirs and good memories.
What are some of the most pressing questions and concerns you have about Zika? Have you known someone who’s contracted it? What was there experience? Let us know in the comments below.