All Posts tagged respiratory illness

Doc Talk: What is hantavirus and how can you avoid it?

Dr. Nathan Levanger

Dr. Nathan Levanger

With the weather warm and the sun shining, now is the time of year for cleaning up the yard, decluttering the house, and digging into old boxes and attics to make space.

While this summer cleaning is music to garage sale lovers’ ears, you can sometimes get more than you bargained for when you finally get to that corner of boxes in your basement or barn.


In Teton Valley, it’s common to find evidence of rodents taking up residence in your long-forgotten possessions, and this can put you at risk for a very serious illness: Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome (HPS).


As of April, 639 cases of HPS had been reported throughout the U.S. this year, with Idaho, Wyoming and Utah reporting 21, 11 and 33 incidences respectively. HPS is more common in rural areas, and it can be fatal.

Transmission
The virus is transmitted to humans most commonly when we breathe in air contaminated by the virus, which is carried by mice, including deer mice common to this area as well as white-footed mice, cotton rats, and rice rats. We are susceptible to breathing in tiny droplets of the virus when we disturb droppings, urine or nesting materials of infected mice. We can also contract HPS if we are bitten by an infected rodent or by eating food contaminated in some way by the virus. It is important to note, however, that not every mouse is infected with HPS.

Risk factors

  • People are more likely to contract HPS if they:
  • Open and clean long unused buildings or sheds
  • Houseclean, particularly in attics and other low-traffic areas
  • Have a home or work space infested by rodents
  • Have a job that involves exposure to rodents
  • Camp, hike or hunt in the wilderness

Symptoms
The Centers for Disease Control reports that symptoms of HPS can develop between 1 and 5 weeks after exposure to fresh urine, droppings or saliva of infected rodents. Early symptoms include:

  • Fatigue, fever and muscle aches, especially in the larger muscle groups such as the thighs, hips and back
  • Headaches, dizziness, chills, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain

Late symptoms, which can occur 4 to 10 days after the initial phase of the illness, include coughing and shortness of breath.


The loss of breath is caused by the lungs filling with fluid, which can be fatal. As well, blood pressure will begin to drop and ultimately organs will begin to fail. The Mayo Clinic reports the mortality rate for the North American variety of HPS at more than 30 percent.

See your provider if you experience any of the symptoms above or if you suspect you may have contracted hantavirus.

Treatment
Treatment can include hospitalization and assisted respiration through intubation or mechanical ventilation. In rare cases, blood oxygenation may also be used.

Prevention
The best way to stay free of hantavirus is to minimize contact with rodents in your home, workplace or campsite. You can do this by sealing up holes inside and outside of your home to keep rodents out, trapping rodents around your home to reduce their population and taking precautions when cleaning rodent-infested areas.
These precautions are:

  • Wear disposable gloves
  • Wet down dead rodents and areas where they have been with alcohol, household disinfectants or bleach.
  • Follow that by disinfecting the area with a mop or sponge
  • Wear a respirator if you are cleaning heavily infested areas

For more information on HPS visit http://www.cdc.gov/hantavirus/hps/index.html

Dr. Nathan Levanger is the Chief of Medical Staff at Teton Valley Health Care. He specializes in family medicine and sees patients at Driggs Health Clinic and Teton Valley Hospital. Call (208) 354-2302 to make an appointment.

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