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Don't Let Nasty Norovirus Spoil Holiday Parties

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No one wants to put a damper on your holiday parties, but the medical community does want you to be on guard for food poisoning, in particular, the norovirus infection, the most common cause of gastroenteritis in the United States.

Noroviruses -- they come in many varieties -- spread easily, and they annually cause more than 20 million cases of gastroenteritis, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Gastroenteritis is commonly referred to as the stomach flu. If it’s caused by food poisoning, then the norovirus or another agent has inflamed the stomach and intestines to the point of nausea, vomiting, cramps, diarrhea and other symptoms.

One frequent consequence of gastroenteritis is dehydration, not replacing the fluids in your body fast enough after one to three days of a lot of vomiting and/or diarrhea. It’s critical to get a health care practitioner’s advice if you can’t keep fluids down.

Whether you want to call it gastroenteritis or stomach flu, you most definitely want to avoid it. Be aware that the norovirus is called the “cruise ship virus” because it often causes widespread illness in crowded, enclosed environments such as cruise ships, as well as daycare settings, long-term care facilities, hotels and schools.

A holiday party, either catered or home-prepared, might be a large enough gathering to cause concern, or at least awareness, regarding the possibility of food poisoning.

Because heat will normally kill the germs that contaminate foods, you mainly need to keep an eye out for leafy greens, fresh fruits and shellfish on those holiday platters. It’s those three categories that have most often been implicated in foodborne norovirus outbreaks, the CDC says. But that doesn’t rule out other foods as culprits.

The CDC points out that noroviruses that cause illness are found in the vomit and stool of infected people. Makes you want to run for the hand sanitizer, doesn’t it?

From the CDC, here are three common scenarios for the spread of noroviruses:

-- From an infected person who has not washed the virus from his or her hands and who touches the food items or drinks that you are about to grab.

-- When you inadvertently touch a surface or object with norovirus and then put your hand or fingers in your mouth.

-- When you catch the norovirus while caring for someone with the infection or somehow have direct contact -- perhaps you shared foods or eating utensils.

People with a norovirus infection are contagious from the moment they begin feeling sick until at least three days after they recover, the CDC says.

So it probably goes without saying that if you think you have food poisoning or are recovering from it, don’t prepare holiday food. Even if you aren’t sick, heed these other crucial tasks for holiday food preparation:

-- Wash your hands carefully and often.

-- Meticulously wash fruits and vegetables, and cook oysters and other shellfish thoroughly.

-- Clean and disinfect contaminated surfaces such as the kitchen counter and cutting boards.

In a related note from the Dec. 8, 2011, issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers think they might have found a vaccine to prevent norovirus illness. The experimental vaccine was studied on a sample of 98 people, with good results for those receiving the vaccine vs. the placebo. It was administered by nasal spray -- two doses three weeks apart.

The researchers said that further study could confirm the reliability of the vaccine, along with helping to determine who should get the vaccine and how long the protection lasts.


“Prevent the Spread of Norovirus.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Web. 14 Dec. 2011.

Mann, Denise. “Vaccine Might One Day Prevent ‘Cruise Ship’ Stomach Bug.” HealthDay. Web. 14 Dec. 2011.

Reviewed December 15, 2011
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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