You’ve probably heard the term “norovirus” – it made the news in our area last summer, in fact – but you may not fully understand what it is, how it spreads or how you can avoid it. In short, norovirus – or the “stomach flu” as it’s often called – is a gastrointestinal illness that causes inflammation of the stomach or the intestines, which can cause everything from nausea and vomiting to abdominal pain and diarrhea that can last as long as three days. It’s also highly contagious, which is partly why it causes more than 20 million illnesses each year, and is the leading cause of food-related illness outbreaks in the nation. It can lead to dehydration, which has been known to result in hospital stays, particularly for very young children and the elderly.
“When an illness is highly contagious, it’s important to know what steps you can take to protect yourself,” said Mary Kathryn Cockrill from Blount Memorial’s Infection Control team, sharing information from the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology (APIC). “Part of why norovirus is so contagious is that it can be in your system even before you start feeling sick, and it can stay with you for two weeks or more after you’ve started feeling better. As with nearly any illness, it’s much easier to spread it when you don’t know you have it. Norovirus usually spreads either person-to-person by shaking hands or sharing food, by touching contaminated surfaces, or by consuming contaminated foods or water – most all of which have to do with good, old-fashioned hand-washing. Most all of us could do a better job of washing our hands, particularly before eating, before preparing food, after using the restroom and after changing diapers. It is critically important, for instance, that food service workers wash their hands well before touching, preparing or serving food,” Cockrill said. “Also, it’s worth mentioning that alcohol-based hand sanitizers will not kill norovirus, so soap and water are the best way to make sure your hands are clean,” she added.
But prevention doesn’t stop with hand-washing. “While hand hygiene is a big step, you also should remember to wash your fruits and vegetables before eating them,” Cockrill said. “Cook all your foods thoroughly before eating them, as well. If you already have the norovirus, avoid cooking meals or preparing foods for others, and remember to clean any contaminated surfaces with a bleach-based household cleaner. This is especially true for surfaces such as bathrooms, floors and countertops that may become exposed to the virus through touch or other episodes of illness,” she explained. “Similarly, after an instance of vomiting or diarrhea, you want to immediately remove and wash any clothing or other items that may have become contaminated. Remember to handle these items carefully, wash with detergent on a long wash cycle, and dry them in a dryer,” she added.
Unfortunately, Cockrill says, treatment options for norovirus are slim. “There’s no vaccine to prevent norovirus, which is why it’s incumbent upon us as individuals to take steps to avoid it,” she said. “There’s also no specific drug available to treat it, and antibiotics are no help because they fight bacteria, not viruses. If you do find yourself dealing with norovirus, it’s important to remember to contact your doctor, drink lots of fluids and stay home to avoid spreading it to others,” she added.