What is Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome?

Medically Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian, MD on December 05, 2022
4 min read

Hantavirus pulmonary syndrome (HPS) is a rare but serious infection that can become life threatening if it isn’t treated. The symptoms can be like those of the flu, and they can get worse quickly.

People usually get HPS by breathing air that is infected by urine, droppings, or saliva of mice and other rodents that have hantavirus, a group of viruses found in wild rodents. This virus doesn’t make the rodents sick.

In people, it mainly harms the heart, lungs, and kidneys.

The best way to avoid the disease is to stay away from rodents and the places where they live. In the United States, there has not been a single documented case of a person passing along the virus to another person.

There isn’t a cure or vaccine, but doctors are able to give oxygen therapy to people with HPS. The earlier it is diagnosed, the better your chances of recovering.

Hantavirus pulmonary syndrome is caused by several types of viruses that are carried by different kinds of rodents.

The primary carrier in North America is the deer mouse. Others include:

  • The white-tailed mouse
  • The cotton rat
  • The rice rat

People most often get the virus if they breathe air that has been poisoned by waste or fluids from an infected rodent.

People most at risk for HPS are those who are often in areas where rodents live. It’s most common in spring and summer and in the western part of the United States.

It also is found in Canada and South America. In Asia, other hantaviruses cause kidney problems instead of lung issues.

Your early symptoms may seem a lot like those of a very bad cold or the flu. You might have a fever and headaches. You may also have:

It can get worse after 4 to 10 days, when signs of HPS include:

See a doctor right away if you have these symptoms and have been around rodents or their waste and saliva.

This can be tricky, since the symptoms are like those you might see with other viral infections. If you have these symptoms, they persist or get worse, and you think you’ve been around rats or mice, then see your doctor.

They can test your blood for hantavirus, and can run tests to rule out other potential problems.

Other tests might be needed to make sure the symptoms are not caused by something else.

There is no cure or treatment to kill the virus.

When you have HPS, you’re generally placed in intensive care in a hospital and given oxygen therapy to support your breathing and clear your lungs of fluid. You might get a breathing tube through your nose or mouth.

This is more effective the sooner you are diagnosed and placed into intensive care.

In the most severe cases, people might have their blood pumped through a machine that adds oxygen and takes out carbon dioxide. This is called “extracorporeal membrane oxygenation.”

About 60% of people who get HPS survive. Clinical trials are ongoing for potential treatments. Ask your doctor about them if you want to know more.

The best way to avoid HPS is simple: Avoid contact with mice and rats and the areas where they live.

If you live, work, or play in areas that have rodents, be sure to keep your home and work area as clean as possible. Other things you can do:

  • Seal holes in structures with cement, wire screens, or metal flashing.
  • Trap the rodents (use snap traps and not glue traps, which allow them to urinate or leave droppings).
  • Store your food properly
  • Call an exterminator or your health department if you need more advice or tips.

As you enjoy the great outdoors, you may naturally come across rodents. When you camp, air out abandoned or seldom-used cabins and check for signs of rodents before you settle in. Other ideas:

  • Check the area around outdoor sleeping spots.
  • Don’t sleep on the bare ground; bring a tent with a floor or mat. Better yet, have a cot.
  • Stay away from woodpiles or garbage areas when you bed down.
  • Keep food sealed, including pet food.
  • Burn your garbage following the campsite’s instructions.