Norovirus is a very contagious virus that causes gastrointestinal symptoms, medically referred to as viral gastroenteritis. It usually comes on quickly and suddenly with significant vomiting and diarrhea.
Many people who have norovirus refer to it as the “stomach flu” or the “stomach bug”; however, there are many types of germs that can cause vomiting and diarrhea. Unless you have a diagnosis of norovirus, or have a known close contact of someone with diagnosed norovirus, you likely won’t know which virus you have. Other viruses that cause gastroenteritis are rotavirus, adenovirus and astrovirus.
Anyone can get norovirus and likely will get it multiple times in their life, since there are many strains of norovirus and long-term immunity to norovirus is unlikely. Norovirus is not typically dangerous for most individuals, but it’s extremely unpleasant. For some high-risk individuals, such as the elderly, young children or those with a weakened immune system, it can be very serious and cause severe dehydration. The illness typically lasts around one to three days.
How does norovirus spread
Norovirus spreads more easily than many other illnesses. Someone with norovirus sheds billions of particles, and it only takes a few viral particles to get sick. Norovirus is typically spread through direct contact with an infected person, contaminated food or water or touching contaminated surfaces then putting unwashed hands in your mouth.
It spreads quickly in places where people gather, such as schools, cruise ships and nursing homes. However, you can get norovirus from anywhere a contagious person has been.
Luckily, a person with norovirus is generally the most contagious after their symptoms start, so staying home when sick is a great way to prevent transmission. Another important way to prevent illness is to wash your hands. Always wash your hands before you eat, after using the toilet or changing diapers, or before giving yourself or someone else medicine.
Handling food properly is also important. Before preparing food, wash all fruits and vegetables and cook food thoroughly. Norovirus is relatively resistant to heat and can survive temperatures as high as 145 degrees Fahrenheit, so be sure to cook your food – especially shellfish – thoroughly. People who are sick should not prepare or handle food.
If clothing or linens have gotten contaminated with norovirus, handle them carefully as you move them to the washing machine. Wash the items with detergent in hot water on the longest cycle possible and dry on high heat.
Norovirus is an extremely challenging virus to disinfect. It can live up to four weeks on surfaces, and it only takes a few viral particles to make someone sick. To properly clean a surface contaminated with norovirus, use a chlorine bleach solution with a concentration of 1,000 to 5,000 (about 5-25 tablespoons) of bleach per gallon.
After spraying the surface, you should let the disinfectant sit for at least five minutes. You can also use another disinfectant registered as effective against norovirus by the EPA and that list can be found by searching “Antimicrobial products registered with EPA for claims against norovirus.”
Is norovirus the same as food poisoning?
Norovirus and food poisoning are different, though symptoms can look similar. Again, norovirus is a virus that you can get from someone infected with norovirus who has touched you, your food or water, or a surface you also touched.
Food poisoning is something you get from eating food that is spoiled, not fully cooked, unpasteurized, raw or contaminated with a bacteria, virus or parasite. The symptoms of food poisoning look similar to norovirus, but may include other symptoms such as muscle aches, headache, fever, eye swelling, difficulty breathing or thirst.
Food poisoning, like norovirus, typically clears up on its own within a few days; however, depending on the pathogen that caused the illness it may require medication.
Whereas norovirus typically appears 24-48 hours after exposure, food poisoning can appear anywhere from two to six hours after ingesting the contaminated food. It’s challenging to differentiate between norovirus and food poisoning, but many people with food poisoning are later able to pinpoint the questionable food source.
What does Public Health do with norovirus cases?
Public Health investigates outbreaks of norovirus, especially those related to long-term care facilities or camps, but can assist in any type of outbreak at any type of facility or organization.
For the most part, Public Health will work with the camp or facility to ensure proper food handling and disinfecting, but in some extreme cases may shut down a camp or recommend quarantine for long-term care facilities.
For individuals with norovirus, Public Health does not typically investigate and would suggest the disinfecting processes and protection measures outlined in this article.
Emily Anderson, RN, BSN, IBCLC, CLC, CPST, is deputy director of Chaffee County Public Health.
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