Hantaviruses are a family of viruses spread mainly by rodents and can cause varied disease syndromes in people worldwide.
Infection with any hantavirus can produce hantavirus disease in people. Hantaviruses in the Americas are known as “New World” hantaviruses and may cause hantavirus pulmonary syndrome (HPS). Other hantaviruses, known as “Old World” hantaviruses, are found mostly in Europe and Asia and may cause hemorrhagic fever with renal syndrome (HFRS).
Each hantavirus serotype has a specific rodent host species and is spread to people via aerosolized virus that is shed in urine, faeces, and saliva, and less frequently by a bite from an infected host. The most important hantavirus in the United States that can cause HPS is the Sin Nombre virus, spread by the deer mouse.
How People Get Hantavirus Infection
Cases of human hantavirus infection occur sporadically, usually in rural areas where forests, fields, and farms offer suitable habitat for the virus’s rodent hosts. Areas around the home or work where rodents may live (for example, houses, barns, outbuildings, and sheds) are potential sites where people may be exposed to the virus. In the US and Canada, the Sin Nombre hantavirus is responsible for the majority of cases of hantavirus infection. The host of the Sin Nombre virus is the deer mouse (Peromyscus maniculatus), present throughout the western and central US and Canada.
Several other hantaviruses are capable of causing hantavirus infection in the US. The New York hantavirus, carried by the white-footed mouse, is associated with HPS cases in the northeastern US. The Black Creek hantavirus, carried by the cotton rat, is found in the southeastern US. Cases of HPS have been confirmed elsewhere in the Americas, including Canada, Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Panama, Paraguay, and Uruguay.
Can pets transmit HPS to humans?
The hantaviruses that cause human illness in the United States are not known to be transmitted by any types of animals other than certain species of rodents. Dogs and cats are not known to carry hantavirus; however, they may bring infected rodents into contact with people if they catch such animals and carry them home.
How People Become Infected with Hantaviruses
In the United States, deer mice (along with cotton rats and rice rats in the southeastern states and the white-footed mouse in the Northeast) are reservoirs of the hantaviruses. The rodents shed the virus in their urine, droppings, and saliva. The virus is mainly transmitted to people when they breathe in air contaminated with the virus.
When fresh rodent urine, droppings, or nesting materials are stirred up, tiny droplets containing the virus get into the air. This process is known as “airborne transmission“.
There are several other ways rodents may spread hantavirus to people:
- If a rodent with the virus bites someone, the virus may be spread to that person, but this type of transmission is rare.
- Scientists believe that people may be able to get the virus if they touch something that has been contaminated with rodent urine, droppings, or saliva, and then touch their nose or mouth.
- Scientists also suspect people can become sick if they eat food contaminated by urine, droppings, or saliva from an infected rodent.
- The hantaviruses that cause human illness in the United States cannot be transmitted from one person to another. For example, you cannot get these viruses from touching or kissing a person who has HPS or from a health care worker who has treated someone with the disease.
- 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.
People at Risk for Hantavirus Infection
Anyone who comes into contact with rodents that carry hantavirus 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.
Any activity that puts you in contact with rodent droppings, urine, saliva, or nesting materials can place you at risk for infection. Hantavirus is spread when virus-containing particles from rodent urine, droppings, or saliva are stirred into the air. It is important to avoid actions that raise dust, such as sweeping or vacuuming. Infection occurs when you breathe in virus particles.
Potential Risk Activities for Hantavirus Infection
Opening and Cleaning Previously Unused Buildings
Opening or cleaning cabins, sheds, and outbuildings, including barns, garages and storage facilities, that have been closed during the winter is a potential risk for hantavirus infections, especially in rural settings.
Cleaning in and around your own home can put you at risk if rodents have made it their home too. Many homes can expect to shelter rodents, especially as the weather turns cold. Please see our prevention information on how to properly clean rodent-infested areas.
Construction, utility and pest control workers can be exposed when they work in crawl spaces, under houses, or in vacant buildings that may have a rodent population.
Campers and Hikers
Campers and hikers can also be exposed when they use infested trail shelters or camp in other rodent habitats.
The chance of being exposed to hantavirus is greatest when people work, play, or live in closed spaces where rodents are actively living. However, recent research results show that many people who have become ill with HPS were infected with the disease after continued contact with rodents and/or their droppings. In addition, many people who have contracted HPS reported that they had not seen rodents or their droppings before becoming ill. Therefore, if you live in an area where the carrier rodents, such as the deer mouse, are known to live, take sensible precautions-even if you do not see rodents or their droppings.
Signs & Symptoms
Due to the small number of HPS cases, the “incubation time” is not positively known. However, on the basis of limited information, it appears that symptoms may develop between 1 and 8 weeks after exposure to fresh urine, droppings, or saliva of infected rodents.
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, diarrhoea, 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%.
Eliminate or minimize contact with rodents in your home, workplace, or campsite. If rodents don’t find that where you are is a good place for them to be, then you’re less likely to come into contact with them. Seal up holes and gaps in your home or garage. Place traps in and around your home to decrease rodent infestation. Clean up any easy-to-get food.
Recent research results show that many people who became ill with HPS developed the disease after having been in frequent contact with rodents and/or their droppings around a home or a workplace. On the other hand, many people who became ill reported that they had not seen rodents or rodent droppings at all. Therefore, if you live in an area where the carrier rodents are known to live, try to keep your home, vacation place, workplace, or campsite clean.