Norovirus can be prevented

Norovirus spreads easily and causes vomiting and diarrhea. There’s no vaccine to prevent it and no drug to treat it. But here are some simple tips to follow to stay healthy.

Norovirus is a group of related viruses that are very contagious. It is the leading cause of stomach and intestine inflammation in the United States. The inflammation, called gastroenteritis (GAS-tro-en-ter-I-tis), leads to stomach cramping, pain, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Some people think of it as the “stomach flu.”

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that each year about 20 million cases of acute gastroenteritis are caused by norovirus – that’s about one out of every 15 Americans, and people can get ill more than once!

Luckily, in most people the illness does not become serious. But there are about 56,000 to 71,000 hospitalizations and from 570 to 800 deaths from norovirus each year in the U.S.

This virus is highly contagious and easily transmitted from person to person, as well as through food and on surfaces. We’ve seen examples of outbreaks on cruise ships, nursing homes, schools, daycare centers and other places where people are in close contact.

Norovirus is found in secretions (such as vomit, feces and saliva) of infected people. It’s spread by eating or drinking food that is contaminated, by touching surfaces or objects where the norovirus has been left and then putting fingers in ones’ mouth, nose or eyes, by providing direct care to someone who has norovirus, or sharing food or eating utensils with them. Those most at risk are the very young, the elderly and those with compromised immune symptoms. People who frequently use antacids are also more susceptible, since the lower acid content of their stomachs does not resist the virus as effectively.

People with norovirus are contagious from the time they begin feeling sick until at least three days after they recover. Some people may be contagious even longer.

There’s no vaccine to prevent norovirus infection and there is also no treatment. Antibiotics won’t help because they fight against bacteria, not viruses.

Thankfully, most people with norovirus do not need to seek medical attention, as the illness is self-limiting – it runs its course and people feel better.

Michigan State University Extension educators suggest ways to protect yourself from norovirus:

  • Wash hands carefully with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after using the bathroom and changing diapers, and always before eating or preparing food. If soap and water aren’t available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  • Wash fruits and vegetables carefully before eating them. Cook oysters and other shellfish thoroughly.
  • People with norovirus illness should not prepare and serve food to others while they have symptoms, and for at least three days after they feel better. This includes both professional food handlers and home food preparers.
  • Clean and disinfect surfaces that have been contaminated by vomit or feces. Use a bleach-based household cleaner, as directed, or make a solution of five tablespoons to 1.5 cups of household bleach per one gallon of warm water.
  • Wash contaminated laundry and clothing with detergent immediately, for the maximum washing machine cycle, then machine-dry.

For additional information about preventing other foodborne illnesses, as well as other issues of interest to families, contact a MSU Extension educator in your area.

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