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How People Get Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome (HPS)

Where HPS is Found

Cases of HPS occur sporadically, usually in rural areas where forests, fields, and farms offer suitable habitat for the virus's rodent hosts. The peridomestic setting (for example, barns, outbuildings, and sheds) are potential sites where people may be exposed to the virus. In the US and Canada, the Sin Nombre hantavirus is responsible for the majority of cases of HPS. The host of the Sin Nombre virus is the deer mouse (Peromyscus maniculatus), present throughout the western and central US and Canada.

Several other hantaviruses are capable of causing HPS in the US. The New York hantavirus, hosted by the white-footed mouse, is associated with HPS cases in the northeastern US. The Black Creek hantavirus, hosted by the cotton rat, is found in the southeastern US.

Cases of HPS have been confirmed elsewhere in the Americas, including Canada, Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Panama, Paraguay, and Uruguay.

How Humans Become Infected with HPS

Can pets transmit HPS to humans?

The hantaviruses that cause HPS in the United States are not known to be transmitted by any types of animals other than certain species of rodents. Dogs and cats are not known to carry hantavirus; however, they may bring infected rodents into contact with people if they catch such animals and carry them home. Guinea pigs, hamsters, gerbils, and rodents from pet stores are not known to carry hantavirus.

In the United States, deer mice (along with cotton rats and rice rats in the southeastern states and the white-footed mouse in the Northeast) are the reservoir of the virus. The rodents shed the virus in their urine, droppings, and saliva. The virus is mainly transmitted to people when they breathe in air contaminated with the virus.

When fresh rodent urine, droppings, or nesting materials are stirred up, tiny droplets containing the virus get into the air. This process is known as "airborne transmission".

There are several other ways rodents may spread hantavirus to people:

  • If a rodent with the virus bites someone, the virus may be spread to that person, but this type of transmission is rare.
  • Researchers believe that people may be able to get the virus if they touch something that has been contaminated with rodent urine, droppings, or saliva, and then touch their nose or mouth.
  • Researchers also suspect people can become sick if they eat food contaminated by urine, droppings, or saliva from an infected rodent.

The types of hantavirus that cause HPS in the United States cannot be transmitted from one person to another. For example, you cannot get the virus from touching or kissing a person who has HPS or from a health care worker who has treated someone with the disease. You also cannot get the virus from a blood transfusion in which the blood came from a person who became ill with HPS and survived.

People at Risk for HPS

Anyone who comes into contact with rodents that carry hantavirus is at risk of HPS. Rodent infestation in and around the home remains the primary risk for hantavirus exposure. Even healthy individuals are at risk for HPS infection if exposed to the virus.

Any activity that puts you in contact with rodent droppings, urine, saliva, or nesting materials can place you at risk for infection. Hantavirus is spread when virus-containing particles from rodent urine, droppings, or saliva are stirred into the air. It is important to avoid actions that raise dust, such as sweeping or vacuuming. Infection occurs when you breathe in virus particles.

Potential Risk Activities for HPS

Opening and Cleaning Previously Unused Buildings

Opening or cleaning cabins, sheds, and outbuildings, including barns, garages and storage facilities, that have been closed during the winter is a potential risk for hantavirus infections, especially in rural settings.

Housecleaning Activities

Cleaning in and around your own home can put you at risk if rodents have made it their home too. Many homes can expect to shelter rodents, especially as the weather turns cold. Please see our prevention information on how to properly clean rodent-infested areas.

Work-related Exposure

Construction, utility and pest control workers can be exposed when they work in crawl spaces, under houses, or in vacant buildings that may have a rodent population.

Campers and Hikers

Campers and hikers can also be exposed when they use infested trail shelters or camp in other rodent habitats.

The chance of being exposed to hantavirus is greatest when people work, play, or live in closed spaces where rodents are actively living. However, recent research results show that many people who have become ill with HPS were infected with the disease after continued contact with rodents and/or their droppings. In addition, many people who have contracted HPS reported that they had not seen rodents or their droppings before becoming ill. Therefore, if you live in an area where the carrier rodents, such as the deer mouse, are known to live, take sensible precautions-even if you do not see rodents or their droppings.

 

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  • Page last reviewed: August 29, 2012
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