Is Zika Virus Like a Cold or the Flu?

Feeding Mosquito.
Could you have Zika?. Grambo Grambo / Getty Images

Zika virus is a mosquito-borne illness that was first discovered in 1947 in Uganda. However, it seemingly came out of nowhere and exploded in South America in 2015. In mid-2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a Public Health Emergency of International Concern due to the outbreak in Brazil.

What Are the Symptoms?

Many people that are infected with Zika have no symptoms at all and never know they have it.

However, those that do get sick typically have symptoms that can also be caused by many other common illnesses.

Frequently symptoms of Zika include:

  • Fever
  • Rash
  • Joint pain
  • Red eyes (conjunctivitis)
  • Headache
  • Muscle Aches

Do any of those symptoms look familiar? If you have ever had any type of common viral illness (like a cold or the flu), they probably do. Although Zika doesn't appear to cause respiratory problems like coughing and congestion, many of these symptoms are common with a lot of other infections and illnesses. It's important to remember that just because you have these symptoms, that doesn't necessarily mean you have Zika.

If you do have Zika, the symptoms usually last between a few days to a week. Most people that get sick with Zika do not need hospitalization and it is almost never fatal.

The incubation period—the time between exposure to the virus and the start of symptoms—is unknown but is thought to be between a few days and a week.

So What's the Big Deal?

If Zika isn't really a severe virus, why is everyone so concerned about it? The problem with Zika, and the reason so many health officials are concerned, is that there appears to be a connection between the virus in pregnant women and microcephaly in their babies.

Microcephaly is a condition in which the head and brain don't fully develop, causing lifelong disabilities.

So even though an adult that gets Zika may not be seriously affected, it can have devastating effects on unborn babies. There have also been confirmed cases of sexual transmission of Zika virus, meaning an infected person has passed it to their sexual partner. Sexual transmission means the risk of microcephaly increases because a pregnant woman can get the virus without being bitten by an infected mosquito or traveling to an affected area.

Aside from the risk of microcephaly, it's also important to know that there are other more serious mosquito-borne illnesses that cause similar symptoms. Dengue and chikungunya are spread by the same mosquitoes that spread Zika and they can have the same symptoms.

If you have traveled to an affected area where dengue, chikungunya, and Zika are endemic, it's important to tell your healthcare provider so they know what to test for. However, if you have traveled to one of these areas and have other symptoms, like a cold or stomach flu, don't expect to be tested for one of these diseases. If the symptoms don't fit, there is no need to do testing.

Another concerning issue with Zika is that it appears to be causing Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) in slightly higher than normal ratios.

GBS is a rare but potentially fatal condition that occurs in some people after a viral illness. It causes gradual muscle weakness or paralysis. In most cases it reverses but it can be permanent or cause death in some people.

Is There Anything I Can Do?

There is currently no treatment or vaccine for Zika. Because most people never develop symptoms or they recover fully without any problem, you just have to wait a few days and you will feel better.

If you are pregnant or could become pregnant, make sure you wear insect repellant if you are exposed to mosquitoes and keep as much of your skin covered as possible.

The CDC and WHO recommend that pregnant women avoid travel to areas where there are known Zika outbreaks.

If you are a sexually active male, be sure to wear condoms to avoid spreading the virus to your partner. If your partner is already pregnant, you should wear condoms throughout the pregnancy or do not have sex during the pregnancy.

If you have traveled to an area where Zika is present, be sure to wear insect repellant and take steps to avoid mosquito bites for at least 8 weeks after returning home. This will help reduce the chances that the virus will spread. Even if you haven't felt sick, you could have the virus in your body. If a mosquito bites you once you have been infected with Zika, it can then transmit it to the next person it bites. The more this happens, the more quickly Zika could spread around the world.

The Bottom Line

If you have traveled to an area where Zika has been found and you start to feel achy, develop a rash, joint pain, a fever, or red eyes, you could have it. But you could have any number of other illnesses as well, so don't panic.

For most people, Zika is not something that should cause great alarm because it isn't debilitating or fatal. But the fact that it can cause microcephaly in unborn babies and also appears to be linked to an increased risk of Guillain-Barré syndrome is concerning. Public health officials are working to do what they can to stop the spread of this disease and making sure you follow their recommendations is an important part of that. 


US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Department of Health and Human Services. About Zika Virus Disease. 2016.

US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Department of Health and Human Services. Zika and Guillain-Barré Syndrome. 2016.

US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Department of Health and Human Services. Prevention. 2016. 

US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Department of Health and Human Services. Symptoms, Diagnosis & Treatment. 2016.