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Norovirus: Preventing the highly contagious bug

December 11, 2018 | UCI Health
man with stomach virus

Norovirus is a foodborne disease that is highly contagious and requires precautions to keep it from spreading.

“Norovirus is one of the most common forms of transmittable gastroenteritis – inflammation of the stomach and intestines – in the U.S. and is one of the most contagious viruses around,” said Dr. Shruti Gohil, associate medical director of epidemiology and infection prevention at UC Irvine Medical Center.

Stay away from others until healthy

“If you think you might have norovirus, in addition to seeing your doctor, be sure to keep others safe by keeping your hands and the surfaces you touch clean, and minimize physical contact with others until you have recovered,” she said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 20 million cases of stomach flu caused by norovirus are reported annually.

Common symptoms include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Nausea
  • Stomach pain
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Body aches

Recovering from norovirus

A person usually develops symptoms 12 to 48 hours after being exposed to norovirus. Most people with norovirus illness get better within one to three days.

“Most patients recover within a few days,” Gohil said. “Until then, drinking lots of fluids and keeping up your electrolytes will help support your recovery.”

The CDC suggests the following steps to help prevent the spread of norovirus:

Practice proper hand hygiene

  • Wash your hands carefully with soap and water — especially after using the toilet and changing diapers, and always before eating, preparing or handling food.
  • Noroviruses can be found in your vomit or stool even before you start feeling sick. Because the virus can stay in your stool for two weeks or longer after you feel better, it is important to continue washing your hands often.
  • Alcohol-based hand sanitizers can be used in addition to hand washing. They should not be used as a substitute for washing with soap and water.

Wash fruits and vegetables and cook seafood thoroughly

  • Carefully wash fruits and vegetables before preparing and eating them. Cook oysters and other shellfish thoroughly before eating them.
  • Be aware that noroviruses are relatively hardy. They can survive temperatures as high as 140°F as well as quick steaming processes that are often used for cooking shellfish.
  • Food that might be contaminated with norovirus should be thrown out.
  • Keep sick infants and children out of areas where food is being handled and prepared.
  • When you are sick, do not prepare food or care for others who are sick.
  • Do not prepare food for others or provide healthcare while you are sick and for at least two days after symptoms stop. This also applies to sick workers in settings such as schools and daycares where they may expose people to norovirus.

Clean and disinfect contaminated surfaces

  • After vomiting or having diarrhea, immediately clean and disinfect contaminated surfaces.
  • Use a chlorine bleach solution with a concentration of 1000–5000 ppm (5–25 tablespoons of household bleach per gallon of water) or other disinfectant the Environmental Protection Agency has registered [PDF] as  effective against norovirus.

Wash laundry thoroughly

  • Immediately remove and wash clothes or linens that may be contaminated with vomit or stool (feces). 
  • Handle soiled items carefully without agitating them.
  • Wear rubber or disposable gloves while handling soiled items and wash your hands afterward.
  • Wash the items with detergent at the maximum available cycle length, then machine dry them.

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