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Norovirus — Millions Become Infected with This Deadly Disease

Norovirus is an extremely contagious, painful, and deadly virus.  In fact, it’s the most common cause of foodborne disease outbreaks in the United States.  According to the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, anyone can become painfully sick from norovirus.

Norovirus causes inflammation of the stomach and intestines, which leads to headaches, vomiting, and diarrhea.  In some cases, dehydration, fever, fatigue, nausea, and stomach cramps may occur.  The technical term for this unpleasant discomfort is acute gastroenteritis.

Though rare — an infected person could die if his or her symptoms are not properly treated.

Globally, norovirus infects close to 267 million people, and more than 19 million people in the United States, each year.

This highly-infectious virus is also responsible for causing 56,000 to 71,000 hospitalizations, and 570 to 800 deaths in the U.S. and 200,000 deaths, globally.

The viral infections result in 1.7 to 1.9 million outpatient visits and 400,000 emergency room visits in the U.S.  Most of the hospitalizations, outpatient, emergency room visits, and deaths involve young children and the elderly.

There are many types of this highly-contagious disease — and a person can get dangerously sick from this viral infection more than once in his or her lifetime.

Norovirus Symptoms And Treatment

Norovirus Has a Variety of Names

Norovirus has more than one name.  Some call it the “Norwalk like virus.”  It was given this name because of an outbreak that occurred in Norwalk, Ohio in 1968.

People sometimes say they have “food poisoning” — unaware that they may be infected with norovirus.

People also have the tendency to say they have the “stomach bug,” or “stomach flu” when they experience the symptoms of norovirus.  But, norovirus illness is not related to the flu, or influenza.  Though they share a few of the same symptoms, the flu is a respiratory illness caused by influenza virus.  On the other hand, norovirus is a viral infection.

Still, others refer to this virus as the “cruise ship virus,” since many outbreaks occur and quickly spread in closed spaces, like cruise ships, daycare centers, nursing homes, and schools.

In the United Kingdom, (where the virus is very prevalent), the norovirus is sometimes referred to as the “winter vomiting bug,” because the majority of outbreaks occur in the U.S. and the U.K., between November and April – the winter months.

Transmission of this Foodborne Disease

The CDC warns people that norovirus can be found in a person’s stool (feces) before he or she feels sick.  The virus can stay in a person’s stool for two weeks or more after he or she feels better.

People are most contagious when they’re sick with the virus.  They remain contagious a few days after they recover from their illness.

A person can become infected with norovirus when they accidently get vomit or feces particles from an infected person in their mouth.  This can easily happen by drinking liquids, or eating food contaminated with the virus.

People also become infected by direct contact.  For example, touching an infected person while caring for them.

Sharing eating utensils, cups, or food with someone who is infected is another way the virus spreads.

Infections for people also occur when they touch objects contaminated with norovirus — like counter tops and doors knobs – and then put their fingers in their mouth.

The CDC reports about 50 percent of all outbreaks of food-related illness are caused by norovirus.  Food can be contaminated with norovirus at any point when it is being grown, shipped, handled, or prepared.

Foods commonly involved in outbreaks of norovirus illness are the following:

  • Leafy greens (lettuce, spinach, kale…)
  • Fresh fruits
  • Shellfish

But, any food that is served raw, or handled after being cooked, can be contaminated.

Unpleasant Symptoms

Becoming infected with norovirus is very unpleasant.  The primary symptoms are explosive or projectile vomiting, diarrhea, and headaches.  Additional symptoms include joint and muscle pain, fatigue, fever, stomach cramps, and nausea.

Symptoms may last 24 to 60 hours.

Treatment of the Disease

At this time, a specific type of medicine to treat people with a norovirus infection does not exist.  Norovirus cannot be treated with antibiotics because it is a viral infection – not a bacterial infection.

Norovirus causes an infected person to vomit and have diarrhea.  Vomiting and diarrhea may cause a person to become dehydrated.  To help prevent dehydration, an infected person should drink plenty of liquids to replace lost bodily fluids.

Avoiding dehydration is important because it can lead to serious problems.  Severe dehydration may require an infected individual to become hospitalized.  He or she may need to be treated to replenish fluids, which most likely will require intravenous or IV fluids through his or her veins.

A physician or healthcare provider should be contacted if dehydration is suspected.

This short video explains what norovirus is, how it spreads, groups that are at high risk for severe disease, and how to prevent it.

Prevention is the Key

The following are a few ways to prevent getting norovirus and protect others, as well.

  • Proper hand hygiene is very important. Wash hands frequently with soap and warm, running water for at least 20 seconds, particularly after using the bathroom and before preparing food.
  • Clean and disinfect food preparation equipment and surfaces. Using a bleach-based household cleaner is recommended. Clean and disinfect surfaces contaminated by diarrhea or vomiting.  Do not cook, prepare, or serve food for others if ill with vomiting or diarrhea.
  • Thoroughly wash vegetables and fruits. Cook shellfish and oysters thoroughly before eating them.
  • Immediately wash linens or clothing soiled by fecal matter or vomit. Carefully remove the items to avoid spreading the virus.  Machine wash with hot water and dry.

Preventing foodborne illness remains one of the United States’ major public health challenges.  Cleanliness is a major factor in preventing foodborne illness.  Always keep in mind — everything that touches food should be clean.

Because bacteria are everywhere, cleanliness is a major factor in preventing foodborne illness like norovirus.

(Photo courtesy of Loren Kerns via Flickr | Cropped and Resized | CC BY-SA 2.0)

About the author: George Zapo, CPH is certified in Public Health Promotion and Education (Kent State University). George focuses on providing informative articles promoting healthy behavior and lifestyles.

3 comments… add one
  • Rebecca

    “Because bacteria are everywhere, cleanliness is a major factor in preventing foodborne illness like norovirus.”

    Norovirus is a VIRUS, not bacteria. Mistakes like these confuse the public–please correct. If you’re not sure yourself what type of organism norovirus is or if you’re confused about general microbiology, then please refer them to the CDC website.

  • Thank you so much for putting this post together on Norovirus. We all need to refresh on the facts of bad “tummy issues” this time of year.

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