The Hantaviruses are a group of rodent-borne viruses that cause illness in humans. The hantaviruses found in Europe and Asia cause a form of kidney disease called hemorrhagic fever with renal syndrome (HFRS). The hantaviruses in the Americas attack the lungs, causing hantavirus pulmonary syndrome (HPS). HPS was only identified as a disease occurring in the US in the 1990s.
- HPS is rare. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 728 cases of the illness were identified in the United States between 1993 and 2017. Cases of HPS have been identified in 34 states, with 96% identified in states west of the Mississippi River.
- The hantavirus that is the predominant cause of HPS in the US is called the Sin Nombre virus.
- The deer mouse is the primary carrier of the virus, with other carriers including the white-tailed mouse, cotton rat and rice rat. The house mouse and Norway rat most frequently encountered in urban communities are not carriers.
- Symptoms include abrupt onset of fever, chills, weakness, nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain followed by difficulty breathing.
- HPS can be rapidly fatal if not identified and treated promptly.
How Hantavirus Affects Your Body
Hantaviruses infect people when they are inhaled. If the virus reaches your lungs, it can infect the cells that line the tiny blood vessels in the lungs, causing them to become “leaky.” The leaky blood vessels allow fluid to fill the lungs making it difficult to breathe.
When the virus infects the heart, the damage reduces its ability to pump blood around the body. This failure causes very low blood pressure (“shock”) as oxygen is not available to all the cells of the body. This can rapidly lead to the failure of most or all of the organs and can quickly lead to death.
Who Is at Risk?
Rural populations with potential exposure to wild rodents are at risk. There are cases of patients developing HPS without any obvious contact with rodents, but it is possible that they didn’t recognize their exposure. Because HPS is an airborne disease spread by rodent saliva, urine or feces, you might never see a rodent and still breathe in air contaminated by the virus. While inhaling tiny droplets of the virus is the most common way to become infected, other routes of infection include a bite from an infected rodent, touching something contaminated by the virus and then touching your mouth or potentially eating food contaminated by an infected rodent. In these cases, an awareness of other cases of HPS in the area and suspicious signs and symptoms should alert you to seek help and doctors to establish early diagnosis and treatment.
Note: Anyone exposed to the virus can develop hantavirus infection, it does not only affect those with weak immune systems. It is commonly linked to occupational exposure in jobs such as construction, janitorial, agricultural and pest control.
Reviewed and approved by the American Lung Association Scientific and Medical Editorial Review Panel.
Page last updated: February 27, 2020