Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome (HPS)

How to Avoid Hantavirus this Spring

As the snow melts, people begin their yearly spring cleaning and start to venture into garages, sheds, barns, and cabins rarely used in the wintertime.  At least rarely used by humans.  Rats and mice can often be found inhabiting these unused spaces.  Exposure to these animals, their droppings, urine, or nests increases the risk of contracting a rare and deadly disease called Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome, or HPS.  You can help protect yourself and your family from HPS by understanding its sources, symptoms, treatment, and prevention.

How HPS Spreads
Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome is caused by a group of viruses called Hantaviruses.  These viruses are carried by certain species of rodents like the deer mouse, white-footed mouse, rice rat, and cotton rat.  While not all species of rodents are carriers, species identification can be difficult.  For this reason, it is recommended to avoid contact with all wild mice and rats.  Humans can contract HPS by breathing in dust contaminated with rodent urine and droppings, by direct contact with rodents or their urine and droppings, and through rodent bites.

HPS Symptoms and Treatment
Once exposed to the virus, it takes 1-5 weeks for symptoms to appear.  Early symptoms of HPS include fever, severe muscle aches, and fatigue.   Approximately half of all patients also suffer from headaches, dizziness, chills, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or abdominal pain.  4-10 days after initial symptoms appear, patients begin to experience coughing and an increasing shortness of breath.  This can quickly turn fatal. Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome has a 38% mortality rate.  Anyone experiencing these symptoms, especially shortness of breath, with a history of recent rodent exposure should contact their physician immediately.

 HPS Prevention
The CDC divides HPS prevention into three steps: “Seal Up!, Trap Up!, and Clean Up!”  For additional information consult the CDC’s Rodents and Facts About Hantaviruses web pages.  For heavy infestations, consider contacting a pest control professional.

  1. Seal Up! Seal human food, animal food, and trash cans in containers with tight fitting lids.  Seal holes in your home around pipes, vents, windows, and doors.  Mice can fit into holes the size of a nickel, while rats can fit into holes the size of a half dollar!
  2. Trap Up! Snap traps and poison bait traps are effective methods of stopping an infestation once it has already started.  Avoid glue and live traps as these may scare the rodents and cause them to urinate, increasing the potential to spread Hantaviruses.
  3. Clean Up!  Clean up dead rodents, droppings, urine, and nests safely. Remember, don’t sweep or vacuum.  This will cause virus particles to become airborne!  
  • Air it out.  If a building has been sealed shut for a long time, open doors and windows for at least 30 minutes prior to use.
  • Wear disposable rubber, nitrile, or latex gloves.  For heavy infestations wear additional protective equipment including NIOSH approved respirators (see Cleaning Up After Rodents for more information).
  • Saturate dead rodents, droppings, urine, and nests with a bleach solution. This can be made by mixing 1 ½ cups of household bleach with 1 gallon of water. Smaller amounts can be made with 1 part bleach and 9 parts water.  Let soak for at least 5 minutes. Follow manufacturer’s instructions for other disinfectants.  This will both kill viruses and prevent them from becoming airborne.
  • Remove dead rodents and nest materials and place into plastic trash bags.  Double bag it.
  • Use disposable towels to wipe away droppings and urine.
  • Disinfect other surfaces that may have been contaminated.
  • Disinfect disposable gloves before removal.
  • Wash hands with soap and warm water for 20 seconds.