As with other health risks, prevention is best. The best prevention is to eliminate rodents in and around where you live, work, and play. If a rodent infestation is discovered, take proper precautions when cleaning the area. People become infected by breathing in the virus, so take care not to sweep, vacuum, or otherwise kick up dust in an area where rodent urine, droppings, or nesting materials are present. But, should I be worried about the hantavirus?
When NOT to worry
- Do not worry about HPS if your pet has had contact with rodents. Dogs and cats cannot give people hantavirus infections.
- Do not worry about HPS if you have had contact with a person with HPS. There has never been a reported case of the virus spreading by person-to-person contact.
- Do not worry about HPS if you feel sick in the weeks following exposure to a rodent-infested area, but your symptoms do not include the universal HPS symptoms listed above.
What are the first symptoms of hantavirus?
Early symptoms include fatigue, fever and muscle aches, especially in the large muscle groups—thighs, hips, back, and sometimes shoulders. These symptoms are universal.
There may also be headaches, dizziness, chills, and abdominal problems, such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain. About half of all HPS patients experience these symptoms.
Four to 10 days after the initial phase of illness, the late symptoms of HPS appear. These include coughing and shortness of breath, with the sensation of, as one survivor put it, a “…tight band around my chest and a pillow over my face” as the lungs fill with fluid.
Is the Disease Fatal?
Yes. HPS can be fatal. It has a mortality rate of 38%. So, should I be worried about the hantavirus?
Can you survive hantavirus?
Hantaviruses infect people when they are inhaled. If the virus reaches your lungs, it can infect the cells that line the tiny blood vessels in the lungs, causing them to become “leaky.” The leaky blood vessels allow fluid to fill the lungs making it difficult to breathe.
When the virus infects the heart, the damage reduces its ability to pump blood around the body. This failure causes very low blood pressure (“shock”) as oxygen is not available to all the cells of the body. This can rapidly lead to the failure of most or all of the organs and can quickly lead to death.
Who Is at Risk?
Rural populations with potential exposure to wild rodents are at risk. There are cases of patients developing HPS without any obvious contact with rodents, but it is possible that they didn’t recognize their exposure. Because HPS is an airborne disease spread by rodent saliva, urine or feces, you might never see a rodent and still breathe in air contaminated by the virus. While inhaling tiny droplets of the virus is the most common way to become infected, other routes of infection include a bite from an infected rodent, touching something contaminated by the virus and then touching your mouth or potentially eating food contaminated by an infected rodent. In these cases, an awareness of other cases of HPS in the area and suspicious signs and symptoms should alert you to seek help and doctors to establish early diagnosis and treatment.
How dangerous is hantavirus?
Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome (HPS) is a severe, sometimes fatal, respiratory disease in humans caused by infection with hantaviruses. But, should I be worried about the hantavirus?
Anyone who comes into contact with rodents that carry hantaviruses is at risk of HPS. Rodent infestation in and around the home remains the primary risk for hantavirus exposure. Even healthy individuals are at risk for HPS infection if exposed to the virus.
To date, no cases of HPS have been reported in the United States in which the virus was transmitted from one person to another. In fact, in a study of health care workers who were exposed to either patients or specimens infected with related types of hantaviruses (which cause a different disease in humans), none of the workers showed evidence of infection or illness.
In Chile and Argentina, rare cases of person-to-person transmission have occurred among close contacts of a person who was ill with a type of hantavirus called Andes virus.
How easy is it to get hantavirus?
Mice and rats spread hantaviruses among themselves. The droppings, urine, saliva, and blood of infected animals are chock-full of virus particles.
Deer mice carry the Sin Nombre strain of hantavirus. Cotton rats and rice rats carry hantavirus in the Southeast, while white-footed mice carry hantavirus in the Northeast.
Although it's possible to get hantavirus infection from a mouse or rat bite, such infections are rare. Most people get it by inhaling dust contaminated by rodent droppings or by touching rodent urine and then touching their mouth, eyes, or nose.
Getting infected is easier than it might seem. For example, you might go into your garage and scare off some mice nesting in an old cardboard box. The frightened mice leave behind a trail of urine. You pick up the mess they've left behind. You sweep up the droppings. The air fills with dust, which you breathe into your lungs.
Even healthy people who inhale hantavirus can get a fatal infection.
Hantavirus cannot spread from person to person. Contact with rodents is the only known risk. So, in essence, does this all answer the question of should I be worried about the hantavirus?
Alicia leads content strategy for LearnWorthy managing a team of content producers, strategists, and copywriters. She creatively oversees content programs, awareness campaigns, research reports, and other integrated marketing projects.