Should You Be Tested for Zika Before You Get Pregnant?

The CDC has updated its guidelines regarding Zika testing for women who are pregnant or trying to conceive. Here's what you should know.

zika virus blood test  sirtravelalot/Shutterstock
Mysterious as the illness may be, there's one thing that's been clear where the Zika virus is concerned: Pregnant women ought to avoid exposure at all costs, as Zika can cause severe birth defects. But understanding how best to screen and treat pregnant women who may be affected is a work in progress—and now, the CDC has issued a new set of guidelines for healthcare providers who deal with pregnant women.

Zika has been linked to microcephaly, a devastating issue that causes babies to be born with abnormally small heads and incomplete brain development, among other defects. The CDC has issued a list of areas pregnant women and those who are trying to conceive should avoid, and we've learned that Zika can be sexually transmitted, so pregnant women's sexual partners need to be careful as well. While researchers are working on a vaccine, there's no protection available at this time.

While screening for the virus exists—pregnant women who have visited Zika territories are given blood tests to measure Zika antibodies—the test may be flawed. According to a release for the update, it's tough to pinpoint whether a woman was infected before or during pregnancy. That's why the CDC has amended guidelines: Pregnant women should be screened for the virus right away if they have any symptoms or have a sexual partner who is infected. The guidelines also indicate the benefit of screening pregnant women during each trimester if their tests are negative, and checking for Zika specimens among women who have amniocentesis procedures.

If you've been to or lived in an area with active Zika transmission, the guidelines suggest that testing before you actually get pregnant could be very important—that way, doctors will have a baseline reading of sorts that can be referenced when you're tested during pregnancy.

With no real treatments available, testing only helps you discover a Zika virus infection, not ensure your and your baby's health. So if you're pregnant or thinking of becoming pregnant, be sure to avoid travel to active areas and unprotected sex with partners who have been to any of these places. If you must visit or live in a Zika zone, cover yourself as much as possible and wear mosquito repellant at all times.

"Our guidance today is part of our continued effort to share data for public health action as quickly as possible," says Henry Walke, M.D., according to the CDC. "As we learn more about the limitations of antibody testing, we continue to update our guidance to ensure that healthcare professionals have the latest information for counseling patients who are infected with Zika during pregnancy."