Amid an already rough flu season, a new nasty strain of norovirus, a highly contagious stomach virus, is causing misery in the United States and around the globe.
It's overloading hospitals and causing cruise ships to turn around and head back to port.
The virus, known as the “winter vomiting disease” causes your stomach or intestines — or both — to become inflamed (acute gastroenteritis) followed by stomach pain, nausea, diarrhea and throwing up.
Fever, headaches, dizziness and body aches may also occur with the virus.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported in its January 25, 2013 weekly Morbidity and Mortality Report that the new superbug known as GII.4 Sydney was first detected in Australia, but is quickly taking hold throughout the country.
The United States now accounts for about 60 percent of norovirus outbreaks.
Anyone can get the norovirus, and you can get it more than once. In fact, each year it causes 21 million illnesses. It contributes to 70,000 hospitalizations and about 800 deaths.
Children, older people and those whose immune systems are compromised, such as people undergoing cancer treatments, can be hardest hit. These people may experience a more severe or longer lasting illness and may become dehydrated.
Most people, however, recover in one to three days without medical attention.
Although a norovirus bug shares many symptoms with the stomach flu it is entirely different.
The stomach flu is a respiratory illness caused by the influenza virus. Norovirus, however, is one of several causes of food poisoning.
A norovirus can sweep through a large number of people rapidly, particularly in closed places like schools, daycares, nursing homes, church, camp, restaurants and cruise ships.
Last month, 220 people on the Queen Mary II were stricken with a norovirus during a Caribbean cruise.
The norovirus is spread by:
- Infected food handlers who don’t properly wash their hands after going to the bathroom.
- Touching contaminated objects, such as stair railings or door knobs and then putting your fingers in your mouth or rubbing your eyes.
- Eating food or drinking liquids that are contaminated with the virus, or otherwise having contact with someone who is infected, such as shaking hands or being near someone who is vomiting.
The best way to protect yourself is to wash your hands well and often with soap and water.
Norovirus can be in vomit or stool before you start feeling sick. It can stay in an infected person’s stool for two weeks or more after recovering from physical symptoms.
As a second-level preventative measure, alcohol-based hand sanitizers can be used, but should never replace or be a substitute for washing your hands.
The CDC also suggests preventing the virus by:
- Thoroughly washing all fruits and vegetables well before eating or preparing them.
- Cooking oysters and other shellfish thoroughly before eating. Be aware that noroviruses are relatively resistant. They can survive temperatures as high as 140°F and quick steaming processes that are often used for cooking shellfish.
- Keeping sick infants and children away from areas where food is handled and prepared.
- Not preparing food when you suspect you are infected with the norovirus
- Throwing out any food you suspect has been contaminated.
- After throwing up or having diarrhea, immediately cleaning and disinfecting contaminated surfaces. Use a chlorine bleach solution with a concentration of 5–25 tablespoons of household bleach [5.25%] per gallon of water.
- Immediately washing and drying soiled clothing or bed linens with detergent on the longest possible machine cycle.
For more information on norovirus, visit the CDC website at http://www.cdc.gov/norovirus/about/overview.html/ and Health Canada at http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/fn-an/securit/ill-intox/noro-eng.php/
Lynette Summerill is an award-winning writer and Scuba enthusiast who lives in San Diego with her husband and two beach loving dogs. Besides writing about cancer-related issues for EmpowHER, her work has been seen in newspapers and magazines around the world.
Reviewed January 29, 2013
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith