Gastrointestinal illnesses are most common during the cooler months of the year. Those suffering from the unpleasant symptoms sometimes report that they have a case of the “stomach flu,” but this term really isn’t accurate; “the flu” refers to respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses.
The most likely culprit in these illnesses is a class of germs called noroviruses. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), illness from noroviruses strikes up to 21 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?
You may have read about outbreaks of norovirus on cruise ships, in college dormitories or in hospitals and nursing homes. This is because the virus spreads quickly in closed places. Unsafe food handling practices can also spread the virus, making it the most common cause of “food poisoning.” You also can catch the virus 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 the virus even 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 may experience fever, headache and body aches. These 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. The best way to avoid catching and spreading it is to use effective handwashing practices. Wash your hands with soap and water before eating or preparing food, and after using the toilet. The CDC reports that alcohol-based sanitizers can be used in addition to handwashing, but they are not a substitute.
Safe food preparation is another important way to avoid contracting the virus. Wash fruits and vegetables, cook foods to the recommended temperature, and disinfect preparation surfaces with bleach-based cleaners. The CDC warns that noroviruses can survive temperatures as high as 140° F, which is higher than we tend to cook some foods.
If you are caring for a person who has norovirus, immediately remove and wash contaminated clothing and linens in hot water (above 140 degrees) with detergent at the maximum available cycle length and machine dry them. Wash your hands after handling soiled items.
For more information about preventing norovirus and protecting yourself while caring for a person who is ill with the virus, visit the CDC’s norovirus information resources (www.cdc.gov/norovirus).
This article is not meant to replace the advice of your doctor. If you have questions about norovirus or resulting dehydration, call your healthcare provider.