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How to prevent norovirus infection

Posted on Dec. 15, 2015 ( comments)
Washing hands

Have you heard rumblings in the news (and hopefully not your stomach!) about norovirus?

Norovirus is a contagious virus that is spread from an infected person, contaminated food or water or by touching contaminated surfaces, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

The virus causes your stomach or intestines (or both) to become inflamed (acute gastroenteritis). This leads to stomach pain, nausea, diarrhea and sometimes vomiting. It is often referred to as the “stomach flu,” but is not related to influenza.

For most people, norovirus is mild and lasts only one to three days. But it can be more serious for young children, older adults and people with other health conditions because of the dehydration that occurs from diarrhea and vomiting.

Anyone can become infected with norovirus and it is the most common foodborne illness in the United States. But there are easy ways to prevent it.

How can you prevent infection?

  • Wash your hands before eating or preparing food. This is especially important if you have just used the restroom or changed any diapers.
  • Wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly before eating them.
  • Boil drinking water for one to three minutes if you have reason to suspect it has been contaminated. Cool water in the refrigerator before drinking. Water filters do not protect against noroviruses.
  • Immediately clean and disinfect contaminated surfaces, and wash soiled clothing and linens with hot water and soap after a vomiting or diarrhea episode.
  • Flush vomit and/or stool down the toilet and make sure that the surrounding area is kept clean.
  • Norovirus is harder to kill on surfaces than some other bacteria or viruses. The CDC recommends using a bleach solution (5–25 tablespoons of 5.25 percent household bleach per gallon of water) or other disinfectant with a label claim for norovirus.
  • Do not prepare food while you have symptoms of food poisoning and for three days after you recover.
  • Washing hands with soap and water is more effective for norovirus than using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

Common symptoms

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal (stomach) pain
  • Diarrhea and vomiting can lead to dehydration
  • Some people experience a headache, fever and body aches

A short, mild (though admittedly unpleasant) illness typically develops 24 to 48 hours after consuming contaminated food or water, touching surfaces that are contaminated or by sharing food or utensils with someone who is infected with norovirus.

It generally lasts about 24 to 60 hours. Only in very rare cases will a person get very sick and need to go to the hospital.

What’s the difference between E. coli and norovirus?

E. coli and norovirus may share symptoms, but there are some key differences.

E. coli outbreaks usually originate from food that is contaminated somewhere along the line of handling the food (processing, handling) and can often be traced back to locations where the contamination occurred, says Sue Gustafson, director of Infection Prevention at MultiCare Health System.

Transmission between people is technically possible, but usually less likely.

Norovirus often starts with someone who is infected and contaminates fresh foods. When someone eats the infected food and gets sick, they can easily pass their sickness on to others.

“Norovirus is quite contagious and is largely related to person-to-person transmission,” says Gustafson.

This story was originally published in January 2013 and updated in December 2015.

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