Outbreaks of the norovirus, one of the most contagious infectious diseases, are closing schools and filling up emergency rooms across the country.
Often referred to as the winter vomiting disease, or the stomach flu, norovirus actually has nothing to do with the flu, but is it’s own highly contagious virus.
Shaefer Spires, M.D., assistant professor of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University and the hospital epidemiologist at Williamson Medical Center, says there are several viruses that cause gastroenteritis (nausea, vomiting and diarrhea), but that norovirus hands-down is the number-one cause of it.
“The way you can tell that a person has contracted norovirus is if everyone around them also gets it,” Spires said. “That’s the problem with norovirus. It is it takes nothing to spread it.”
He said a person who has it will spray billions of particles into the air when they vomit. It only takes about 20 viral particles to get into another person’s mouth for them to catch it. Other stomach viruses take thousands of particles to infect another person.
“If a child comes home with norovirus then the whole family is going to get sick and possibly even some of the neighbors,” Spires said. “The virus can live on hard surfaces for weeks.”
Certain areas of the northeast are facing school closures due to norovirus outbreaks infecting such large amounts of children, although the school closings in Tennessee so far are actually flu-related and not the norovirus.
Richard Westgate, MSN, RN, and the director of the Emergency Department at Williamson Medical Center said he doesn’t know of a norovirus outbreak in our area that has filled the emergency room with sick people.
“Typically we see it spread through nursing homes,” Westgate said. “We had an outbreak a year or so ago that quarantined two area nursing homes. But if we do see a patient in the ER who might have it, we try to isolate them as best we can and the staff wears protective gear to ensure they don’t get it or spread it.”
Spring Hill resident Adrienne Bero has had the norovirus, which she contracted while working in an assisted living facility.
“It was so horrible I still remember everything about it,” Bero said. “You feel completely fine one minute and then the next you are running to the bathroom. Hearing there are outbreaks of this across the country definitely scares me because I never want to have it again.”
Ironically, very few medical facilities actually test for the norovirus. Medical professionals kind of know it when they see it.
“We don’t typically test for it, because it doesn’t change our course of treatment at all,” Spires said. “Most places don’t have the ability to test on-site for norovirus. If you have vomiting and diarrhea, that’s the first thing I would think of, especially if you have others in the family with it. “
Westgate said there would be an expense to the patient to run the test and it wouldn’t help them get better any faster.
So how can you try to prevent the spread of norovirus? Spires recommends three little words: wash your hands.
But he clarifies by saying the typical splash of water, squirt of soap and out the door won’t cut it.
“Really good hand hygiene is the best way to ensure you don’t get it,” he said. “You have to scrub your hands for at least 30 seconds. You need bubbles and friction. You have to get all the little crevices on your hands. The goal is to dislodge the virus particles and wash them down the drain.”
Before you go thinking you can just use a little hand sanitizer, keep reading.
“Alcohol by itself is not adequate to kill all the virus on your hands,” he said. “You never totally sterilize your hands, which is why a surgeon will scrub their hands for 10 minutes and then still wear gloves.”
Short of being around someone who has the virus, the second quickest way to get norovirus is through contaminated food. Spires said food handlers are notorious for spreading it because most people don’t was their hands thoroughly enough to get rid of it completely.
“That’s one reason norovirus is so closely associated with cruise ships,” he said. “90-some percent of cruise ship outbreaks are cause by norovirus because it lives on foods you don’t cook. On cruises, people are eating un-cooked fish and if one person gets it, everyone is at a very high risk of getting it because of the close proximity of everyone onboard.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says norovirus is the leading cause of illness and outbreaks from contaminated food in the United States. About half of all outbreaks of food-related illness are caused by norovirus. Food can get contaminated with norovirus at any point when it is being grown, shipped, handled, or prepared.
Foods that are commonly associated with a norovirus outbreak are leafy greens, fresh fruits and shellfish. Any food that is served raw or handled after being cooked can get contaminated.
The good news is, although a person who gets infected by this nasty bug feels horrible for 24 to 48 hours, it’s usually gone after two days.
Westgate said a visit to the ER is primarily recommended if you start to notice signs of dehydration.
“If you become excessively weak and are having trouble moving around on your own, your mouth is dry and you have a decreased amount of urine, that’s when you should think about getting to a doctor to get some fluids,” he said.
Because the virus is so contagious, the CDC recommends waiting at least two days after you feel better to return to work.
Spires also recommended not cooking anything for the same period of time.
But he also added that we cannot live in a sterile bubble and that there are always going to be risks. So just be smart. Wash your hands correctly and don’t put your hands or fingers in your mouth.Share this Article