Just when you thought you knew everything about potential threats in the woods, hantavirus strikes again. This microscopic scourge lurks in the most unlikely of places, mouse droppings.
Unsurprisingly, campers, cabin dwellers, and RVers come into contact with rodents more than most people. It’s essential to know about threats before heading out into the wilderness.
If your travel plans include forested areas, we’ve gathered the most critical information and prevention tips for you.
Let’s dig in!
What Is Hantavirus?
In the early 1990s, a series of mysterious deaths in the Four Corners region set off alarms. Healthcare professionals sought out a cause for a cluster of disease-related casualties. They determined rodents were to blame.
People blamed them for everything from the plague to cholera for hundreds of years. In this case, it wasn’t the fleas spreading contagion. Instead, doctors discovered that the infections came from a virus carried by deer mice. Initially, they thought it was a new virus, but further research revealed a shocking truth.
Lung samples from as far back as 1959 contained the hantavirus. Finally, scientists found a cause for these mysterious deaths. Since the rodent population doubled in 1993 due to increased grain production, the signs all pointed to these critters. White-footed and deer mice commonly carry the virus.
The pathogen spreads through mouse droppings, urine, and saliva. Infections come from inhaling the pathogen, usually during cleaning. Consequently, beware if you’re heading into an enclosed space that’s not regularly cleaned. You might come in contact with the hantavirus.
What Are the Symptoms of Hantavirus?
Because of the relatively small number of infections in the US, there’s not a lot of information about the hantavirus. Officials at The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suspect it may take one to eight weeks to develop symptoms after exposure.
In the early stages of an infection, symptoms mirror the flu. Sufferers report muscle soreness, fatigue, and headaches. For people infected with the hantavirus, early detection is critical to survival. Sadly, most identified deaths occur when the infection moves into the later stages.
Can You Die from HPS?
Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome (HPS) can kill you. Around a week after flu-like symptoms begin, things take a darker turn. Doctors report that the lungs start filling with fluid, and death may follow. Even when treated, HPS has a 38% mortality rate.
Treatment for the syndrome may include hospitalization and highly invasive breathing support. Extreme interventions include patients hooked to a machine that removes blood from the body and enriches it with oxygen. When treating symptoms of HPS, it’s important to remember that there’s no cure.
Pro Tip: Keep your home rodent free by uncovering How to Catch That Damn Mouse.
How to Avoid Hantavirus
Since a cure for the virus doesn’t exist, reducing exposure is the most important way to prevent infection. Nearly all cases of HPS come from the home. However, campers and RVers are susceptible.
Keep Rodents Away
First, and most importantly, keep rodents away from your living spaces. It stands to reason that since mice spread the infection, keeping your area clean is vital. These pests are attracted to food sources and go to great lengths to access them.
Campers and RVers should keep food in sealed containers, not bags, and only open them for meals. After eating, clean your kitchen or campsite thoroughly to avoid uninvited guests. Outdoors it’s almost impossible to keep all mice away. However, removing a food source is an excellent first step.
Wear Protective Gear when Cleaning
Opening up your cabin after the off-season should be a source of excitement. But little critters make it a hazmat-suit-worthy process. Use proper protective gear when sanitizing your space to prevent hantavirus exposure.
Experts recommend airing out enclosed spaces for at least 30 minutes before entering. Rubber gloves and N95 masks reduce your exposure to potential contamination. When cleaning, use a 10% bleach solution on all surfaces where rodents may have scampered. After you’ve sanitized the space, dispose of all cleaning materials properly.
Cleaning is essential, but using proper cleaners when sanitizing is even more vital. Bleach is the most common disinfectant used because it’s widely available. Diluting bleach to a 10% mix with water helps reduce the likelihood of hantavirus infection. According to Clorox, use a half cup of bleach to one gallon of water, mop for a few minutes, and then rinse.
When cleaning, make sure not to mix ammonia-based and bleach cleaners. If you do, you’ll have more problems than just mouse droppings. The combination creates harmful gases that shouldn’t be inhaled.
Avoid Rodent-Infested Areas
If you know the area you’re camping in has a rodent infestation, keep away until you can adequately clean it. Or choose another site if you can. Rodents love dark, sheltered places with access to food. For campers and RVers, check around the perimeter of your campsite or vehicle regularly.
Additionally, look for points where rodents might enter and take steps to remove them. For example, it would be best to block holes and repair body damage to ensure they can’t get inside in the first place.
Seek Medical Attention Immediately
Exposure to rodents and their feces is reason enough to seek medical attention. Tiredness, dizziness, fever, chills, muscle aches, and vomiting are signs of HPS. Additionally, you may experience coughing and shortness of breath. Any of these symptoms following rodent exposure are cause for alarm.
Doctors can’t cure the syndrome but can treat symptoms to increase the likelihood of survival.
Pro Tip: Mice are hazardous for your health and for your vehicle. Learn more about The Hidden Damage of Mice in Your Engine (and How to Prevent It).
Should You Fear Hantavirus?
Vacations in the wilderness shouldn’t be a source of fear. But for many, HPS is of genuine concern. Being prepared is your best defense when trying to avoid hantavirus. Watch for signs of mice in enclosed spaces, and if necessary, make alternate plans. In this case, a little preparation and caution make all the difference.
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