As we head into another beautiful Pacific Northwest summer, many of us—patients, doctors, and staff alike—will be headed to the outdoors for days, weekends, weeks, and more.  That is a good and healthy thing and something many of us look forward to all year long.  So, while we don’t want to overstate any risks, and we certainly don’t want to discourage healthy outdoor activity, we do want to educate our patients on one potential pitfall of time spent outdoors.

The hanta virus. 

The risk of being infected is very low but the consequences of infection are sufficiently serious that we would like to provide some basic information on what hanta is, how to avoid it, and what to do if you suspect you have it. 

What it is

Hantavirus pulmonary syndrome (HPS), commonly known as the hanta virus, is an infectious disease characterized by flu-like symptoms including fatigue, fever, headaches, muscle aches in the thighs, hips and back; dizziness, chills, and nausea.  Life-threatening breathing problems are an advanced symptom.  HPS can be fatal.

The hanta virus is a product of the deer mouse, a six inch-long, large-eared rodent not uncommon in the Northwest.  A white underside is the deer mouse’s most noticeable differentiating characteristic.  Exposure to the virus typically occurs by breathing hanta-contaminated dust. 

How to avoid it   

To avoid hanta:

Avoid rodents and rodent habitat. 

When camping, use a tent with a floor, avoid sleeping directly on the ground. 

Keep outdoor cooking areas clean and keep food in thick plastic or metal containers with tight lids.

Don’t leave pet food or water out overnight.

Keep birdfeeders away from the house and use squirrel guards to keep rodents away from them.

Keep compost bins at least 100 feet from the house.

When cleaning an area, such as a cabin or vehicle, which might have been exposed, open all windows and doors for at least 30 minutes before cleaning.  Then, using a mask, latex gloves, and a disinfectant composed of one part bleach to ten parts water, clean all surfaces thoroughly.     

There is no vaccine to guard against HPS.

What to do if you suspect you’ve been exposed

If you worry you might have been exposed to rodents or rodent habitat and you are suffering from any of the symptoms listed above, contact a physician immediately.  The hanta virus is potentially fatal and early treatment offers the best chance of survival.