Hantavirus Disease

Last Reviewed: October 2014

What is Hantavirus disease?

Hantavirus disease is caused by several different strains of Hantaviruses. Hantaviruses are found in wild rodents in different parts of the world. Hantaviruses found in North America cause Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome which can cause severe lung problems. In the U.S., human Hantavirus infections were first identified in the Southwest in 1993. Although most cases have occurred in the western U.S., sporadic cases have been found in several eastern states including New York.

What are the symptoms of Hantavirus disease, and how long after infection do they appear?

Symptoms usually appear within two to four weeks of infection, but can appear as early as one week or as late as six weeks after infection. Initial symptoms are general and flu-like: fever (101° F and above); headache; abdominal, joint, and lower back pain; sometimes nausea and vomiting. However, the primary symptom of this disease is difficulty in breathing, which is caused by fluid build-up in the lungs, and which quickly progresses to an inability to breathe. Infected persons sometimes die of respiratory failure or shock.

Is this illness common to humans?

No. Hantavirus infections are rare. Sporadic or isolated cases may occur throughout the country, but the majority of cases have occurred in the southwestern U.S. Only 5 cases have resulted from exposure in New York State, three on Long Island (during 1994, 1995, and 2011), one in the Catskills (during 2000), and one in the Adirondacks (during 2012).

How is the virus transmitted?

Hantavirus can be spread from wild rodents, particularly mice and rats, to people. The virus, which is found in rodent urine, saliva, and feces, can be easily aerosolized in confined spaces when disturbed by rodents or human activities, such as sweeping or vacuuming. Breathing in the virus is the most common form of transmission; however, one can also become infected by touching the mouth or nose after handling contaminated materials. While rare, a rodent's bite can also spread the virus. Pets (including dogs, cats, and rodents from pet stores) are not known to carry Hantavirus.

There is no evidence of person-to-person transmission in the United States. No health care workers have been infected while caring for infected persons.

Is there any treatment?

There is no specific treatment, cure, or vaccine for Hantavirus disease. Early supportive treatment of patients with Hantavirus disease can improve survival. If there is a high degree of suspicion of Hantavirus disease, patients should be immediately transferred to an emergency department or intensive care unit for close monitoring and care. Experimental ribavirin treatment has not been successful for Hantavirus patients and is not recommended.

Is the disease always fatal?

No. Soon after the disease was first recognized about half of those infected died, but rapid diagnosis and supportive treatment have improved survival. Mild illnesses have been reported.

Is it safe to travel where Hantavirus infection has been reported?

Yes. Travel to and within areas where Hantavirus infection has been reported is safe. Yet, visitors to rural areas and nature resorts — campers, hikers, and others who take part in activities outdoors — can become exposed to rodent urine, saliva, or droppings, which present possible exposure to the virus. Therefore, these persons should take appropriate precautions to protect themselves.

What is the best way to prevent exposure to Hantaviruses?

Avoid contact with rodent droppings or urine. Avoid touching live or dead rodents. Do not disturb rodents, burrows or nests.

What should be done to reduce exposure to Hantavirus at home?

To reduce exposure to Hantavirus around the home, prevent or eliminate rodent infestations. If rodents are in the home, consult an exterminator or your local health department for additional information on rodent removal and control. Snap traps are preferred to eliminate rodents. Glue traps or live traps are not recommended because the rodent may defecate or urinate which might spread the virus. Ideally, the snap traps should be set in an empty container, such as a milk carton lying on its side, or on newspaper to prevent contact with potentially infectious material. The used trap, box, or newspaper and rodent should be thoroughly wet down with a household disinfectant solution (such as detergent and 1½ cups of bleach for each gallon of water) and then placed in plastic bags for disposal. Use disposable gloves during cleanup and then wash hands with soap and water after completing the cleanup. After eliminating rodents from a building, you should then eliminate the conditions that attract them (improperly stored food sources, rubbish, etc.). Rodent-proofing measures should be applied to prevent rodent entry.

What should be done to clean up after rodent droppings?

The virus, which is able to survive in the environment for a few hours or days (for example, in dirt and dust in the shade or in rodent nests) can be killed by most household disinfectants, such as bleach, detergents or alcohol. Exposure to the sun's UV rays can also kill the virus. Dwellings with large amounts of rodent droppings should first be aired before re-occupying the building. It is important to keep rodent dropping particles from getting into the air where they can be inhaled. The debris should be thoroughly wet down with a household disinfectant solution (such as detergent plus 1½ cups of bleach for each gallon of water) to reduce airborne dust. An old spray bottle with a fine mist is ideal for applying the solution. Debris should then be wiped up while wearing disposable gloves and placed in plastic bags for disposal, together with any cleanup materials such as paper towels. Do not use vacuum cleaners or sweep with brooms, which will create dust in the air. Use of disposable gloves, dust masks, long-sleeved clothing, and protective eyewear may help prevent personal exposure. Wash hands with soap and water after completing the cleanup.

What should be done to minimize the risk of Hantavirus infection while camping?

  • Before occupying abandoned or unused cabins, open them up to air them out. Inspect for rodents and do not use cabins if there are signs of rodent infestation such as droppings or nests.
  • If sleeping outdoors, check potential campsite grounds for rodent droppings and burrows.
  • Avoid sleeping near woodpiles or garbage areas, which are commonly frequented by rodents.
  • Avoid sleeping on bare ground; use a tent with a floor, mat or elevated cots if they are available.
  • Do not leave pet food in feeding dishes.
  • Store foods in rodent-proof containers and promptly discard, bury or burn all garbage in accordance with campsite regulations.

Where can I get more information?

If you are seriously ill with a high fever, consult a doctor or local emergency room immediately. For general information, call your local or state health department. Additional information on Hantavirus prevention is available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at: http://www.cdc.gov/hantavirus/.