My doctor looked over my red-speckled face and arms with a concerned look. She tossed open the door of the examination room and shouted to her assistant: “What do we need to do to test for Zika?”
The thick jungle, where disease-carrying mosquitoes like to hang out
I knew that the Zika virus existed in Central America, where I had just spent the last three weeks traveling. With images of tiny-headed babies plastered across the media, it was hard not to know about Zika. But I was far from planning a pregnancy, and I’d read that most people don’t even show symptoms when they contract the disease. I figured I was fine. Plus, I was bringing plenty of 99% DEET bugspray. There was nothing to worry about.
About halfway through my trip, I was sitting in a lounge chair near my hostel pool in El Tunco, El Salvador. The itchiness of my legs was driving me crazy. I was doing everything I could not to scratch them open. I looked down at my legs and counted the bites.
Thirty-seven mosquito bites, just on my legs. I remember examining them, each one framed by a swollen red circle, and thinking with this many bites…I’m sure I’ve contracted something by now.
Whyyyy am I so delicious?!
By the end of my trip, my body’s immune system was shot. Between early mornings, frequent elevation changes, crappy dorm beds, an inconsistent diet, and constant moving from place to place, I officially had a head cold. My last day in Central America was spent holed up in my hostel room with my Kindle, and a bottle of fruit juice I forced down my raw and aching throat.
These guys kept me company while I stayed in my room
When my plane touched down back home in Michigan, my head felt like it was 100 pounds, I had had my second ever nose-bleed, and my ears wouldn’t repressurize.
Five days later, when my blood test came back with a positive result, I was already 100% convinced I’d contracted the Zika Virus. Over the next week, my symptoms came in phases..
Phase 1: Fever
I spent the next few days after coming home on the couch with an ice pack plastered to my forehead. I didn’t have much energy to do more than lay and watch tv. After about 2 days of lazing around nursing my fever, I began to feel more like myself.
Phase 2: Rash
I awoke about two days later and looked into the mirror to find that I was entirely covered in small red splotches. They made my skin warm to the touch, and were slightly itchy. I found that if my body temperature was normal, they were a light red color. But if I was hot, especially after showering, my skin would turn a firey red. Other than that, I could function as normal.
Phase 3: Joint Pain
I had a solid 24 hours between phases 2 and 3 where I completely symptom-free. I was beginning to believe that I was done dealing with the Zika virus. Wrong. That next morning, I woke up with pain in my right foot, which slowly spread to my ankle and knee. By the end of that day, both my legs felt rigid with sharp pain that left me hobbling around my house like an old person. After about two more days, I was back to normal with no symptoms.
Tylenol was my best friend for a few days
It turns out it’s not hard to get Zika virus, as the mosquitoes in Central America don’t give a damn about your DEET spray. While it wasn’t necessarily fun to have Zika virus, it did teach me something.
There are so many people right now who have cancelled their travel plans due to Zika. I was fully aware of the Zika virus being in Central America prior to my trip, and still decided to go.
I can’t even believe how many amazing things I would have missed out on, had I cancelled the trip due to some nasty mosquitoes. I would have never looked out over the terra cotta rooftops of Antigua. I would have never climbed to the top of an ancient Mayan pyramid in Honduras. I would have never sucked down a fresh, tropical fruit smoothie on the shore of the Pacific Ocean in El Salvador.
Looking back on my three-week trip in Central America, there is not a single thing I experienced that was not worth a week of itchy face and achey legs. And on the plus side, now that I’ve had Zika, I can never get it again!
Bring it on, skeeters….
No matter where you travel, you will always be taking some kind of risk. But in the end, the amazing things the world presents to you will always be worth it.
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