by Kimberly Allen RN
The norovirus is a member of a group of genetically diverse viruses that are responsible for causing highly contagious infection. In the US it is the number one cause of gastroenteritis with approximately 21 million diagnosed cases every year. Norovirus is responsible for over 70,000 hospitalizations and at least 800 deaths every year. Also, the number one cause of food borne disease in the US is the norovirus. The norovirus can affect anyone at any age, however it is more serious in the very young and seniors. Also, you can not build up a resistance to this virus so you can get sick from it every time you’re exposed to it.
The norovirus is usually transmitted through contaminated food or water, or by touching surfaces, like door knobs that have been contaminated. It is usually found in areas where people live in close proximity like nursing homes and cruise ships. It is also common to have outbreaks in schools where children are in almost constant contact with each other, especially kindergartens and day care centers. Another common method of transmission when people that are infected handle food, like in a restaurant. They transfer the virus to whatever food they touched just before it is served, then the unsuspecting customer eats the contaminated food and before you know it that person has inadvertently infected someone else and it goes on. Because the norovirus can survive the use of both hot and cold water as well as many disinfectants it is extremely difficult to get rid of.
The norovirus infection usually resolves itself in a few days for most people, however for those that have an impaired immune system, the very young and older adults it can be very serious. The biggest problem they face is dehydration. Dehydration leads to electrolyte imbalance causing problems with the heart and other organs as well as malnutrition. Most deaths from norovirus occur in this group.
Symptoms of norovirus infection usually develop 24-48 hours after being exposed to the virus. Norovirus symptoms can range from little to no symptoms to severe symptoms. Even if you have no symptoms you are still contagious and can spread the infection without knowing it. The most common symptoms are nausea and vomiting with abdominal pain and cramping and you will have loose watery diarrhea. Most people also have a low grade fever. You may experience some weight loss depending on the severity of your symptoms.
In most cases infections with norovirus can be treated at home with rest and lots of fluids. Drinking a lot of fluids is the most important measure to take in order to prevent dehydration. Today there are numerous drinks available to replace electrolytes including pedialyte and gatorade. Some people also get relief with over the counter antidiarrheals like immodium. However if your symptoms do not resolve in a few days and/or you are unable to take in enough fluids to prevent dehydration you should contact your Dr.
The best way to prevent norovirus infections is good hand washing. It’s important for both you and your children to practice good hand washing with soap and water after using the bathroom and before eating or touching food. It’s also important to wash off fresh produce and wash your hands frequently when handling food. Washing the kitchen utensils and cutting boards between foods is also helpful. Maintaining a healthy immune system is also crucial to fighting bacterial infections.