A Closer Look At Your Health: Preventing norovirus

(Note: A Closer Look At Your Health airs at 6:50 a.m. most Tuesdays on KBOI News Radio 670. This is an edited transcript of the segment that aired April 5.)

This nasty little virus tends to be thought of as a cruise ship illness because outbreaks on ships sound like a terrible vacation — and that’s when the media tends to cover it the most. But for most of us, there’s a better chance of becoming infected in restaurants, long-term care facilities like nursing homes and in other places where people gather and share bathrooms, including day cares, schools, camps, and big events. It’s so highly contagious – a very small amount of the virus can make you sick. It’s estimated that a person will get norovirus five times in their life.

What does norovirus do to us?

It’s not pleasant. Norovirus causes gastroenteritis, which is an inflammation of the stomach and intestines. That leads to stomach cramping, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. The virus is found in the vomit and stool of infected people. Other symptoms include stomach pain, fever, headache and body aches. 

Who is at risk?

Everyone is at risk, but the very young and old and those with chronic conditions are more likely to get sick. Norovirus is the most common cause of gastroenteritis in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 19 to 21 million cases of acute gastroenteritis are caused by norovirus each year. Most people recover in about three days, but the virus causes up to about 70,000 hospitalizations and up to 800 deaths a year in the United States.

How does a person become infected?

People get norovirus from contaminated drinks and foods, including undercooked oysters and shellfish and fresh produce, from stool or vomit from a sick food handler who didn’t wash their hands properly, by touching contaminated things like doorknobs and then putting fingers in mouths, or by having direct contact with someone who is infected.

How long are people contagious?

They are most contagious from when they start to feel sick until at least three days after they recover. Some people are contagious for even longer. That’s why it’s so important to stay home when you feel sick. If you think you have norovirus, see your doctor, but also make sure to drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration, which can set in quickly.

So how can we protect ourselves?

There is no vaccine to prevent it or any medication to treat it. The best way to protect yourself is to wash your hands often, but especially after using the toilet or changing a diaper, and always before eating or preparing food. Other ways to reduce the risk of infection include thoroughly washing fruits and vegetables, and cooking oysters and other shellfish thoroughly before eating them. Also, don’t prepare food for others while you are sick and for at least three days after you recover. Potentially contaminated surfaces should be cleaned with a bleach-based cleaner or other disinfectant labelled as EPA-registered against norovirus. Any contaminated clothing or blankets also should be washed and dried.






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