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Protect Yourself from Norovirus

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced this month that cases of norovirus, commonly called stomach flu, are spreading across the U.S., and the numbers are higher than usual.

Our primary care doctors in Delray Beach don’t want anyone to panic, but the chart that the CDC provided along with its announcement is certainly attention-grabbing. It shows that the rate of norovirus tests coming back positive, averaged over three weeks, exceeds 15 percent, the highest rate recorded since late March 2022.

Although Florida is not one of the 14 states that participate in the CDC’s National Respiratory and Enteric Virus Surveillance System (NREVSS) reporting system, it’s fairly safe to assume that we are not exempt from this common and highly contagious virus.

The scattered outbreaks are nothing to be alarmed about, however—although norovirus typically kills about 900 people a year, mainly seniors—but it’s not an illness you want to get. That’s because if you do contract it, you’re in for several days of sheer misery, and possibly even hospitalization.

What is Norovirus?

The CDC explains that despite its nickname, this type of illness isn’t actually caused by the flu virus, but “by accidentally getting tiny particles of feces (poop) or vomit from an infected person in your mouth.”

The norovirus causes inflammation (acute gastroenteritis) of the stomach or intestines or both. The most common symptoms include severe diarrhea and vomiting, stomach pain, fever, chills, headache, and body aches.

The frequent vomiting and diarrhea can lead to dehydration, which in turn triggers the additional symptoms of a decrease in urination, dry mouth and throat, and dizziness on standing.

Another common marker for norovirus is the rapidity of onset; the patient can be feeling fine one minute and sick the next.

Although not usually deadly, the CDC estimates that the virus causes between 19 million and 21 million cases in the United States every year, leading to an average of 110,000 hospitalizations and about 900 deaths annually, mainly in young children and seniors.

The norovirus can also be responsible for food poisoning. The CDC says it is the leading cause of illness and outbreaks from contaminated food in the U.S., responsible for 58 percent of foodborne illnesses each year.

Easily Spread

“One of the distinguishing features of norovirus is that it is highly contagious and transmissible, so just a few virus particles can cause someone to be sick,” Dr. Soniya Gandhi, an infectious diseases specialist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, told ABC News.

According to the CDC, the number of virus particles that fit on the head of a pin is enough to infect 1,000 people, and victims can shed billions of particles throughout the course of their illness. A single gram of infected feces can contain billions of virus particles, yet it takes only 10-1,000 particles to make someone sick.

In addition, the virus can be found in the stool of infected individuals as long as two weeks after recovery, as well as on contaminated surfaces for up to two weeks.

It spreads easily in such closed environments as hospitals, schools, restaurants, and cruise ships because the violent vomiting that is one of its hallmarks is thought to release at least a million particles of the virus into the atmosphere, which then settles everywhere in the immediate environment. But you can also pick it up at the store or at church or at friends’ homes.

Also, once in place, it is very difficult to remove. Hand wipes and sanitizers aren’t enough. It takes at least 30 seconds of vigorous hand washing (including under the nails) with soap and water to eradicate the virus, and a bleach solution to remove it from surfaces.

Staying Safe

To protect yourself and your family, the CDC recommends the following:

1. Wash your hands carefully and thoroughly with soap and water often throughout the day, especially after using the toilet and changing diapers, and always before eating, preparing, or handing food. Do not depend on hand sanitizers or wipes.

2. Wash fruits and vegetables before eating them, and be sure to cook oysters and shellfish thoroughly: the quick steaming process frequently used to cook shellfish often isn’t sufficient, as the virus can withstand temperatures as high as 140° F.

3. Do not prepare food for others while you are experiencing symptoms and for at least two days after your symptoms subside. If you are sick, stay home.

4. Use a chlorine bleach solution of 25 tablespoons of bleach per gallon of water to clean contaminated surfaces, or use another disinfectant registered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as effective against norovirus (check the product’s label).

5. Immediately remove and wash clothing or bed linens that may be contaminated with vomit or feces in hot water on the longest-available cycle length and machine-dry on the hottest setting. Wear disposable gloves while handling such items and wash your hands afterward.

The norovirus usually runs its course in one to three days. If you catch it, it is important to stay in bed until fully recovered and drink plenty of water and fruit juices to prevent dehydration. If your symptoms are especially severe, or if you have any concerns regarding possible complications, please let us know.

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