It’s a warm and sunny spring day. The birds are out singing in full force as the flowers around your new home bloom in gorgeous swaths of color. The brightness of the day matches your mood as you finish moving in your belongings. Within just a few short weeks, though, your euphoria turns to dismay. After experiencing symptoms that you originally thought were the result of having become tired and run down enough to get the flu, you realize that you are not only sharing your home with your family, but also with the rodents that live there.

What is Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome (HPS) is a respiratory disease that affects people who have become infected by the hantavirus. HPS is known to be a severe disease which can also be fatal. The disease has a reported mortality rate of 38%.

As of this writing, there have been no cases in the United States in which HPS was passed from one person to another, meaning that all cases probably arose from the rats and mice that carry the virus. Anyone living in a home with rodent infestations is at risk of being exposed to hantavirus –  even healthy people with strong immune systems.

How is Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome Transmitted?

In most American cases, people are diagnosed with HPS after having been exposed to the Sin Nombre hantavirus. Though Sin Nombre is the primary virus behind most HPS cases in this country, there are others that can be transmitted through contact with rodent droppings, saliva and/or urine. If you live in the South, for example, you might be exposed to the Black Creek hantavirus. People residing in the northeastern U.S. could be exposed to the New York hantavirus.

Other cases of HPS have been confirmed in Uruguay, Panama, Canada, Bolivia, Paraguay, Chile, Argentina, and Brazil.

In most cases, the hantavirus is transmitted by unwittingly breathing in air contaminated with the virus after a rodent has shed it in its droppings, urine, or saliva. When these rodent by-products are stirred up, the hantavirus is released into the surrounding air.

While airborne transmission is the most common way for you to get the virus, it is not the only method of exposure. Like the transmission of other viruses, researchers believe it is possible to get the hantavirus by touching an item contaminated with rodent waste or saliva and then touching one’s mouth or nose without washing hands. Another method of exposure is by eating food that has been contaminated by a rodent’s saliva, urine or droppings of a rodent.

A fourth method, albeit a rare one, according to the CDC, is via a rodent bite.

Which Rodents Carry Hantavirus?

The CDC notes that the carrier for Sin Nombre, the virus that is responsible for the majority of hantavirus transmissions in the United States, is the deer mouse. Its range spans the central and western regions of both Canada and the United States. The cotton rat, which lives in the southeastern U.S., is the host for the Black Creek hantavirus. The white-footed mouse, whose habitat tends to be restricted to the Northeast, is a vector for the New York hantavirus. The rice rat can also carry the hantavirus.

Though it is important to note that not every member of a rodent species known to carry the hantavirus will be a transmitter, it is difficult to tell which ones are. For this reason, it is best to avoid contact with all wild mice and rats in order to protect your and your family’s health.

What are the Symptoms of Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome?

Like so many other illnesses that ultimately become serious and potentially life-threatening, the hantavirus has symptoms that mimic a number of other conditions. That being said, there are some universal symptoms of hantavirus that typically develop between one and eight weeks after exposure. Fatigue and fever accompany muscle aches that tend to target the large muscles such as the hips, thighs, back, and sometimes the shoulders.

In addition to these universal symptoms, about half of the people exposed to the hantavirus will also experience diarrhea, nausea, abdominal pain and vomiting as some of the earliest symptoms of the virus. About four to ten days after the first symptoms begin, the onset of late – and more serious  symptoms – will begin. These include shortness of breath, low blood pressure, a productive cough that results in secretions, reduced heart efficiency, and the accumulation of fluid in the lungs.

Effective Treatment of Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome

Though the early symptoms of hantavirus exposure can mimic other illnesses like influenza, HPS can worsen quickly and require emergency hantavirus treatment. People who experience flu-like symptoms such as chills, muscle aches, fever, or difficulty breathing, and who have been around wild rodents and their droppings, should see a medical care provider immediately.

If you have been exposed to the hantavirus, your condition could become life-threatening very quickly. As your lungs begin to fill with fluid, your coughing will become worse but won’t clear your throat. You’ll find it difficult to breathe, and your blood pressure will drop. Your organs, especially your heart, will begin to shut down and fail. Though the actual rate varies depending on which strain of the hantavirus you have been exposed to, the mortality rate for those with the North American type can exceed 30%.

In reality, there are only limited options when it comes to specifically treating HPS. Your prognosis is better the earlier its dangers are recognized and the sooner you seek treatment. If you have a severe case of HPS, you will need to be immediately hospitalized in the intensive care unit. You might need to be intubated and placed on a ventilator in order to support your breathing and help manage the fluid as it builds up in your lungs. Being intubated involves inserting a breathing tube through your mouth or nose into your trachea to help keep your airways open.

In severe cases, you might have to undergo extracorporeal membrane oxygenation. This process involves pumping your blood through a machine that eliminates the carbon dioxide and replaces it with oxygen. This oxygenated blood is returned to your body.

Other Communicable Diseases Caused By Rodents

In addition to Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome, there are a number of serious communicable diseases that you and your family could be exposed to if there is a rodent infestation in your home. This includes leptospirosis, a bacterial disease caused by consuming food or water contaminated by the urine of rodents and other animals. You can also contract this if the bacteria makes contact with your skin or mucous membranes.  The symptoms of leptospirosis mimic other illnesses and include muscle aches, red eyes, chills, high fever, abdominal pain and more. Left untreated, this disease can cause liver failure, meningitis, respiratory distress and death.

If you are exposed to rodents in the western U.S., you could get the plague, a bacterial disease contracted after a bite from a rodent flea. The plague can cause headache, chills, fever, weakness, swollen lymph nodes and other symptoms. Prompt medical attention and the appropriate antibiotics can help prevent the spread of this disease throughout the body.

How to Control Rats, Mice and Other Rodents

Avoid leaving materials like wood, paper, and other debris around, materials that rodents can use for nesting. Seal any holes or cracks both inside and outside your home to prevent rodents from getting inside. If you have seen evidence of rodent infestation, place traps in areas around your home.

When cleaning any areas that have been infested, protect yourself with a mask and gloves. Be sure to use a mixture of bleach and water while cleaning infested areas to kill any viruses and bacteria that might be present. Don’t hesitate to contact a professional exterminator if there is further evidence of mice or rats.

Controlling rodents is extremely important to avoid exposure to potentially fatal diseases. This means making a top priority of freeing your home from rodents. Fortunately, many of these preventative measures have the added benefit of protecting against other pests.