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Norovirus: What is it and how can you prevent it?

What Exactly is the Norovirus?

Norovirus has such an infamous name it’s often called worse than the flu. The ailment lives up to its reputation, derailing vacations, racking up sick days and leaving its subjects in painful misery.

Unrelated to influenza, norovirus is an easily contagious virus spread from infected people, contaminated food or water, or by touching contaminated surfaces. Norovirus inflames the stomach and intestines (also known as acute gastroenteritis), causing stomach pain, nausea, dehydration, diarrhea and vomiting. Tax audits can be more fun than this virus, which is the most common cause of foodborne-disease outbreaks in the United States. In closed settings like childcare centers, retirement homes and cruise ships (the hottest norovirus hot spot of all), norovirus can spread like wildfire.

And norovirus, which was first confirmed in 1972 during an outbreak in Norwalk, Ohio, is an equal opportunity headache. The virus can attack anyone – especially young children and older adults, who are most at risk of developing serious cases. Plus, the virus offers no immunity. People can catch norovirus many times in their lives.

The most common cause of acute gastroenteritis in the U.S., the Center for Disease Controls reports norovirus causes 19-21 million illnesses, leads to 56,000-71,000 hospitalizations and 570-800 deaths annually.

The good news: The recovery time for most people with norovirus is 1-3 days.

Norovirus is a complex, multi-strain headache without a proven vaccine. The virus’ many different strains make developing a vaccine extremely difficult and make it impossible for our immune systems to produce the necessary antibodies to repel it. Norovirus believes it is immortal, can live up to 14 days and doesn’t respond to antibiotics designed to kill bacteria.

Can Norovirus Infections Be Prevented?

Doctors are now trying vaccine models in humans, but there is no commercial vaccine presently available.

So how do we fight back and ward off an extremely troublesome virus that can be lurking at any time of the year? Like many viruses, the fight begins with our hands. Proper handwashing and general cleanliness are the best ways to inoculate ourselves as well as much as possible against norovirus. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers are also a proven tool in reducing the transmission rate of norovirus in some settings. Proper hand hygiene, especially in environments where the virus is present, is essential to remaining healthy.

Norovirus infections occur when people eat food or drinks that have been infected or touch an object that has been infected with the virus, then touch their nose, mouth or eyes. Shaking hands, sharing contaminated food and utensils and having close contact with contaminated individuals are the most common means of transmission. And norovirus preys on individuals with weakened immune systems.

Common symptoms are muscle aches, chills and fatigue. Subjects with serious symptoms should consult a doctor for a norovirus test immediately.

The guideline on how to effectively avoid norovirus in areas where it is present like work and social settings is simple.

  1. Avoid direct contact with sick individuals. Avoid contact with objects a sick coworker or friend may have touched.
  2. During cold and flu season (November to April), limit how often you dine out and monitor your choices of restaurants. Most norovirus outbreaks occur in food service settings like restaurants. Infected food servers are most often the source of the transmission. Raw fruits and vegetables are the most commonly infected foods.
  3. Stay hydrated with water and low-sugar juices (avoid sodas, sugary drinks and alcohol, which lead to dehydration). This is especially important for children, who are norovirus’ No. 1 target.
  4. Stay home from work, school or group activities if you’re feeling under the weather.
  5. Disinfect all food preparation and consumption areas in your home as if Mr. Clean himself was going to inspect your work afterward.
  6. Wash your hands. Then wash your hands. Then wash them again. Regular handwashing with soap and water and smart hand hygiene are our best defenses.

Norovirus is among the most troublesome and headache-inducing of airborne pathogens and viruses, but a good defense plan can keep us one step ahead and clear of this tricky health hazard.

photo credit: Christine Myaskovsky (chrissymckeen)

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