Hantavirus pulmonary syndrome (HPS) is a rare respiratory illness that is spread by rodents infected with hantavirus. The virus is shed in rodent urine, feces or saliva, and is most likely to occur when rodents live close to humans. HPS can be life threatening, so it is best to avoid contact with rodents and their droppings as much as possible.
The hantavirus doesn’t affect rodents, but when inhaled or ingested, it can affect humans’ lungs, hearts and kidneys. It spreads through the bloodstream and usually infects multiple organs, causing blood vessels supplying these organs to leak blood and fluid into surrounding tissues. In the lungs, fluid can fill air sacs and make breathing difficult. In the heart, it can impact how the muscle pumps blood.
The combination of breathing difficulty and low blood pressure caused by reduction in blood flow can cause the body to go into shock and can lead to death.
There are two stages to hantavirus pulmonary syndrome. Initially, you may feel like you have a bad case of the flu. Symptoms include fever and chills, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, headaches and abdominal pain.
After 4 to 10 days, the second and more serious stage of the disease begins. In this stage, you may have a productive cough, have trouble breathing, and feel weak and lightheaded. You’ll experience low blood pressure and fluid accumulation in the lungs.
If you know you have been around rodents or potentially exposed to hantavirus, see a doctor as soon as you start to experience symptoms. If you don’t know you have been exposed, you may just assume you have the flu, but seek medical treatment as soon breathing difficulties begin.
There are several different types of hantavirus, but the cause of each of them has been firmly established. The deer mouse, the white-tailed mouse, the cotton rat and the rice rat are the four known carriers of the hantavirus.
When an infected rodent deposits droppings, these droppings will contain the hantavirus. When the droppings are stirred up by someone trying to clean them or by someone walking through them, the virus will be swept up into the air where viral particles may be inhaled.
Once the virus is inhaled, it makes its way into the capillaries in the lower parts of the lung. These capillaries become inflamed and leak fluid into the lung causing the severe congestion that results in the hantavirus pulmonary syndrome.
No person in North America has ever acquired the hantavirus due to contact with another infected person. No other animals except the four named rodents are carriers or transmitters of the hantavirus.
Most people who develop hantavirus pulmonary syndrome must be hospitalized and receive supportive care to assist their breathing. Sometimes antiviral drugs can help reduce symptoms.
In severe cases, you will need a respirator. Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, a method that pumps blood out of your body, removes carbon dioxide and adds oxygen, and returns the blood to your body, can help reduce the strain on your heart and keep your organs from failing. Kidney dialysis can help reduce the strain on your kidneys.
It can take several weeks or months to recover from HPS.
The best way to prevent becoming infected with the hantavirus is to avoid contact with the rodents that are the known carriers of the disease. This would include coming into contact with live or dead rodents and their waste.
If one is cleaning out a barn, shed, attic or other area where rodents might be suspected to dwell, one should wear a face mask in order to prevent the inhalation of any dust that might contain rodent droppings and the hantavirus.
Keeping one’s home free from rodent infestation is very important in preventing infection with the hantavirus. Make sure any holes where rodents might enter are plugged. Keep the home as clean as possible. Keep food items in their proper containers so as not to attract rodents.
If out camping or in the woods, avoid rodent dens and holes. Keep food and water secure so that no rodents are attracted to the campsite.