Springtime is upon us, sort of, and this time of year is when we often clean out our garages and sheds, pull out the patio furniture, strike up the barbecue and put last year’s unwanted items out to the curb. But before you do, be mindful of some common hazards that could result in severe respiratory illness.
The Southwest is plagued with various desert state rodents such as prairie dogs and deer mice. During the cold months these rodents, particularly mice and rats, tend to take refuge in our garages. We often don’t even know it because they are stealth critters and abscond with the warm weather — but hey also may return for shelter throughout the warmer months. Unfortunately, when they do they can leave behind some droppings that can be toxic to the humans who come in contact with them. This can lead to a potentially fatal lung infection known as hantavirus.
Hantavirus is a viral infection that causes pulmonary (lung) problems. Basically, breathing becomes impaired. This can lead to respiratory distress which can progress to respiratory failure and even death. Hantavirus has not shown to be transmitted from human to human, but from human contact with rodents or their urine, saliva or feces. Surveillance data shows that each year, a handful of Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome cases are reported in the Southwestern states, including Utah, Colorado, California, Arizona and New Mexico.
Infection is spread as mice shed the virus in their droppings or saliva. Most people become infected through aerosolized virus — basically breathing in infected air. This occurs when mice droppings become stirred up during the cleaning process. You can become infected when you touch an object that came in contact with rodent droppings or urine, and then touch your eyes, nose or mouth.
Symptoms usually begin from one to five weeks after the exposure. Symptoms start out as fatigue, fever, headaches and muscle aches; general flu-like symptoms. Within a few days to a week, symptoms begin to progress to shortness of breath and then full blown respiratory distress. During this time, the lungs are likely filling with fluid. Remember, Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome has a high rate of death.
So, what can you do to protect yourself?
Prevention can include doing things like sealing off holes and gaps in your home, garage or trailer so that rodents cannot gain entry. Always keep food in sealed containers and clean up spills quickly and thoroughly. Look for droppings, particularly in areas where rodents might seek shelter. If you notice any potential rodent droppings, spray the droppings with water prior to cleaning to prevent the virus from being aerosolized. After spraying, wear a close-fitting mask around your nose and mouth. Wash your hands and clothing thoroughly as soon as possible, and try not to touch things beforehand.
If you notice the symptoms discussed earlier, visit your doctor or clinic quickly. Let your medical provider know that you were cleaning in area where rodent droppings were identified. Also, recognize that the exposure may not always be visible. The majority of patients diagnosed with Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome did not recall seeing rodent droppings, but rather reported recent activities involving cleaning garages or basements, or had recently visited camps or other area where rodents live.
If you would like to learn more about Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome, visit the CDC information page at cdc.gov/ncidod/diseases/hanta/hps/index.htm.