When it comes to viruses, the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has certainly received most of the attention during 2020! But experts tell us that this year, there also have been outbreaks of another common viral illness.
Have you heard someone report that they were sick with a case of the “stomach flu”? This term really isn’t accurate; “the flu” refers to respiratory illness caused by the influenza virus. Instead, the ailing person was suffering from a gastrointestinal infection. The most likely culprit in these illnesses is a class of viruses called noroviruses.
Norovirus strikes more than 20 million people in the U.S. each year. This very contagious illness causes an inflammation of the stomach and intestines. For most people, a bout of norovirus leads to, at worst, two or three very miserable days spent close to the bathroom. But for seniors, norovirus illness can be serious, even fatal.
How do people catch norovirus?
Just as is true with COVID-19, norovirus spreads quickly in closed places. Schools, cruise ships, hospitals and nursing homes are common sites for outbreaks. You may have read there is little evidence that COVID-19 is spread in food—but quite the opposite is true with norovirus! Norovirus is a common cause of “food poisoning” when someone consumes food or liquid that has come in contact with the virus. You also can catch norovirus from contact with someone who has it, or by putting your hand in your mouth after you’ve touched a contaminated surface or object. Infected people can spread norovirus before symptoms begin, and even days after they are feeling better.
What are the symptoms of norovirus?
The signs of norovirus include diarrhea, vomiting, nausea and stomach pain. The symptoms usually strike suddenly. People who have contracted the virus also might experience fever, headache and body aches. The effects usually last for one to three days.
How is norovirus treated?
Viruses cannot be treated with antibiotics. If you or a loved one develops a norovirus infection, bed rest is recommended. Drink plenty of liquids to replace fluids that are lost from vomiting and diarrhea. The doctor may recommend certain types of fluids to help replace important nutrients and minerals.
Norovirus may cause dangerous dehydration, especially in children and older adults. If you or someone you are caring for is severely dehydrated, call the doctor. Hospitalization and intravenous fluids may be required. Symptoms of dehydration include:
- Decreased urination
- Dry mouth and throat
- Dizziness when standing up
How can we prevent norovirus infections?
There is currently no vaccine for norovirus, making sanitary precautions all the more important. Norovirus is highly contagious. We get it when we are in close contact with a person who is infected with the virus. It also can live on surfaces from days to weeks, entering our body when we get the virus on our hands and put our fingers in our mouth, or consume foods and liquids that are contaminated with it.
The best way to avoid the spread of norovirus is for everyone to use the same effective handwashing practices that we’ve been practicing before and certainly during the COVID-19 pandemic. Wash your hands with soap and water before eating or preparing food, and after using the toilet. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that alcohol-based sanitizers can be used in addition to handwashing, but they are not as effective.
Safe food preparation is another important way to avoid contracting norovirus. Wash fruits and vegetables, cook foods to the recommended temperature, cook shellfish thoroughly, and disinfect preparation surfaces with bleach-based cleaners. (Do not use the solution or other disinfecting products directly on food.)
Today more of us are ordering food delivery and takeout food. The CDC says reheating cooked food to a safe temperature also can reduce the risk of norovirus, as well as kill other harmful germs. Check out the restaurant’s health department rating, as well.
If you are caring for a person who has norovirus, disinfect surfaces and wear rubber or disposable gloves. Immediately remove and wash contaminated clothing and linens in hot water (above 140° F) with detergent at the maximum available cycle length, and machine dry them. Wash your hands after handling soiled items.
A last note about norovirus and COVID-19. Experts tell us some COVID-19 patients experience gastrointestinal symptoms—up to one-third, according to Stanford Medicine researchers. Most also had the more typical symptoms such as cough, fever and difficulty breathing—but some did not. If you are experiencing vomiting, diarrhea or loss of appetite, contact your healthcare provider to find out what you should do, especially if you are in the high-risk category.
This article is not meant to replace the advice of your doctor. If you have the symptoms described above, or if you have questions about norovirus or resulting dehydration, contact your healthcare provider.