Quick facts about “Norovirus” also known as “Norwalk Virus”

What is it?

Norovirus is a general term for a family of viruses that cause the “stomach flu” or gastrointestinal illness. It is not to be confused with the Influenza, which is the respiratory illness that people are immunized against in the late fall of each year. Norovirus is a new name for a virus that has been around for a very long time. Many people occasionally have this virus, which they have typically called the “24 hour flu”. Only recently has this common illness been given a name and only recently laboratories have had the ability to identify it.

Doctors don’t generally test their patients for Norovirus, partly because it self-resolves in a short time, and partly because most laboratories do not perform the tests.

The Oregon State Public Health Lab tests for Norovirus when large numbers of people develop symptoms suggestive of the virus.

What are the symptoms of Norovirus?

Symptoms usually include: diarrhea and/or vomiting.

Symptoms occasionally include muscle aches, head aches, low grade fever, stomach cramps, and gas in addition to the symptoms above.

Usually the illness is short in duration, and mild enough that most people do not go to see the doctor.

How do you catch Norovirus?

Usually noroviruses are caused by ingesting food or water contaminated with the virus. Virus that is present in the vomit or stool of an infected person can be spread to others in food or water or on contaminated surfaces.

It takes only very tiny amounts of this virus to make a person ill. This is why it is easy to spread it from person to person. You can accidentally get the virus on your hands from contaminated objects. If you don’t wash your hands well before preparing food, you can make yourself and others ill.

This virus can sometimes be spread in the air when ill persons vomit forcefully.

What makes Norovirus a big concern?

Norovirus-like illness becomes an issue of public health importance when people share a common source of food, or share very close living spaces. Schools, nursing homes, cruise ships, summer camps and hotels are all likely places for a norovirus outbreak. When people live in close quarters or share meals with each other, they are also likely to share illness. The role of public health is to help stop the spread of illness to others. Wide spread illness can create big impacts to individuals, families, and organizations.

Can Norovirus be treated?

Antibiotics are not effective against viruses, so they are not recommended to treat this disease.

To speed recovery from norovirus, get lots of rest and drink plenty of fluids. This illness usually runs its course in 24-48 hours.

Can Norovirus be prevented?

The bad news: There is no vaccine against this disease, and a bout of norovirus will not protect you from having it again. The body does not develop long lasting immunity to this family of viruses. Without proper sanitary practices, you can catch this illness again and again. It takes only very, very small amounts of virus to cause illness.

The good news: Good hand washing habits and careful disinfection of surfaces can greatly reduce
the odds of catching or spreading this illness. It takes great diligence, but it can be done. Always, wash your hands well just before eating or fixing food, and before rubbing your eyes, nose or mouth. Careful attention to disinfection of surfaces can also reduce the spread of illness.

Even after a person has recovered from the illness, they are often contagious for two or three days after illness is gone. Because of this, it is important not to prepare food for others until you have been free of symptoms for 2-3 days. It is wise to avoid even casual social or work-related activities for 2-3 days after diarrhea or vomiting is over. Stay home from work or school when ill.

If you need to clean up some vomit or diarrhea, or change a diaper with diarrhea, use gloves to do these tasks. Wash hands very carefully even after wearing gloves. You can wash your hands more effectively if you keep fingernails short and do not wear lots of jewelry on your fingers. Use paper towels to dry hands, and use the paper towel to turn off the faucet. This is important even at home when someone in the household is ill.

Frequently disinfect bathroom fixtures with freshly mixed bleach solution to avoid spreading illness to other household members.

Common disinfectants and alcohol based cleaners are not effective in killing this virus: Usually it takes bleach solution using 1/2 cup bleach to 1 gallon of water to kill this virus on surfaces. Bleach should be freshly mixed and should stay in contact with surfaces for 10 minutes to be effective. (Unfortunately, not all surfaces can safely be cleaned with bleach.) Instant hand sanitizers should not be used except as an addition to hand washing. Air out rooms well when using bleach and after someone has vomited. Wear gloves when using bleach and protect your clothing from it.

Note: Norovirus, and certain other viruses can survive freezing temperatures, therefore can live in ice. It is important to treat ice like you treat food: keep it clean and free of germs and viruses!! Do not dip hands or personal containers into ice chests and ice dispensers.

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