5 Ways to Prevent Catching or Spreading a Stomach Virus (Norovirus)
What Is Norovirus?
Often called the "stomach bug," "stomach flu," or the "winter vomiting bug," norovirus is a highly contagious virus that inflames the intestines and causes stomach pain, nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting.
The main norovirus seasons are winter and spring, but it can strike year round. Doctors are still unsure why it seems to occur more often during the winter, but theorize it may be because people stay indoors and in closer proximity to others for more time.
So far, there is no vaccine for norovirus. But it is possible to take steps to prevent catching it in the first place. Below are five ways you can protect you and your family from catching or spreading this uncomfortable virus.
5 Ways to Prevent Catching or Spreading Norovirus
- Wash your hands frequently with soap and water.
- Clean, cook, and eat food at home.
- Teach children how to protect themselves at school.
- Protect yourself in the workplace.
- Quickly get rid of germs if sickness strikes in the household.
Continue reading for explanations of each of these tips.
1. Wash Your Hands Frequently With Soap and Water
Any public surface you touch may be contaminated with norovirus. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have said not to rely on hand sanitizer alone, and to continue to wash your hands regularly. While sanitizers may protect you against cold and flu viruses, they are not effective against norovirus. Follow these steps when washing your hands.
- Lather your hands, wrists, and lower arms with soap.
- Use hot running water and scrub for at least one minute, preferably two.
- Rinse thoroughly.
- Dry your hands on a new paper towel. (Note: Germs and viruses spread when people use and reuse cloth towels.)
2. Clean, Cook, and Eat Food at Home
Food preparation and handling is a major infection path. All public food establishments, from the most upscale restaurants to fast food joints, have signs posted in restrooms used by employees that read, "Wash your hands!" But do you really trust that all food handlers are doing this every time they go to the bathroom?
It is safest to eat at home during the norovirus seasons of winter and spring, but if you must eat at a restaurant during this time, choose well-cooked foods. Shellfish and salads are the types of foods which are most often infected with norovirus. You should also avoid foods that contain sticky dairy products, such as cheese, which actually help the virus cling to plates.
Your home kitchen may not be free of problems, either, but you have more control over the whole process, from choosing clean utensils, to cooking, to serving, and finally eating. It's also a good habit to wash all countertops with a disinfecting solution before any food preparation. Be sure to use new paper towels, not reusable sponges or cloths. Go through the same process after meals, and mop the kitchen floor with a solution containing hydrogen peroxide or bleach.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommend the use of a chlorine bleach solution for killing norovirus, but most people hesitate to use bleach routinely because it can cause discoloration. Clorox now sells a retail product containing a stronger hydrogen peroxide than the 3% most people keep in their medicine cabinets, and it's guaranteed to kill norovirus in only a few seconds.
Also, be sure to wash all uncooked foods, especially produce or fruit that will be eaten raw. Try this effective homemade solution for cleaning produce, which is made up of the following ingredients:
- 1 cup distilled white vinegar
- 3 cups water
- 1 tablespoon salt
Mix these ingredients in a bowl, then soak your raw foods in the solution for two minutes. After the two minutes, rinse the food thoroughly. You can also put the solution in a clean spray bottle and spray it on raw meat. Rinse after two minutes.
When shopping for foods, especially produce, seafood, and meat, look at labels and avoid foods from countries that do not enforce safety standards in their production. Do you really want to eat shellfish and other seafood from contaminated water, or vegetables that may have been irrigated with sewage?
Last but not least, when it comes to washing dishes, if you don’t think you can get rid of the virus by hand washing, wash all dishes in your dishwasher using the hottest water setting. Choose a sanitize cycle, if you have it, and let the dishes hot air dry.
3. Teach Children to Protect Themselves
Norovirus spreads through schools and daycare facilities like wildfire, and kids often bring the virus home unknowingly. Even young children can be taught the importance of washing their hands and how to do it properly.
Lightly spray their backpacks with disinfectant and wipe their books, notebooks, pencils before they leave for the classroom. Give them a small bottle of hospital-grade sanitizer for emergencies, but make sure your kids know it doesn't take the place of soap and water. For younger children, tape a “cheat sheet” inside the flap of a backpack or notebook as a reminder, including these tips:
- Wash your hands with soap every chance you get, especially after using the bathroom or touching a doorknob or any other object someone else has touched. If you can't get to soap and water, use the sanitizer in your backpack.
- Don't touch your face with your hands.
- Don't eat anything from someone else's lunch or snack.
- Stay away from anyone who seems sick, even your friends.
- Wash your hands thoroughly as soon as you get home from school. Don't eat an after-school snack until your hands are clean.
The more repetitive you are with these messages, the more likely they are to remember and practice them. You don't want to give your kids phobias about viruses and germs, but you can teach them about preventing icky illnesses without being a nag. Teach by example.
When it comes to food, make your children’s lunch with healthy foods stored in a brown paper bag. The food handlers at schools aren’t any more likely to follow through with hand-washing procedures than those who work in restaurants. Protecting your children’s health requires your active involvement.
If you have children young enough for daycare, talk to the management about their hygiene procedures. Ask what their policy when it comes to sick employees, and if they don't seem receptive, remind them that keeping everyone healthy means more business.
4. Protect Yourself at Work
The first step you can take to protect yourself at work is to prepare your own healthy lunch at home, bringing it to the workplace in a disposable bag. Once at work, you will touch numerous objects that are potentially infected, so be sure to wash your hands regularly. If any of your coworkers appear to be feeling under the weather or mention getting over a stomach bug, keep your distance. You aren’t being rude, you’re just protecting yourself and your family.
5. Be Smart About Germs If Sickness Strikes
In spite of all you do to avoid norovirus, someone in your family may still get it. After vomiting and diarrhea end, the sick person should take a warm shower with lots of soapy lather. Leave the water running for a few minutes after exiting the shower stall to wash virus particles down the drain. After, clean the shower with a disinfectant, preferably chlorine bleach-based. All towels, washcloths, and sleepwear should be carefully placed in a plastic garbage bag until they can be put into the washer.
All bed linens the sick person has used should be stripped and cleaned. All laundry used by the infected person should be washed with bleach on the longest and hottest washer setting. When removing soiled sheets and other bedclothes, take the ends and fold them inward toward the middle carefully to avoid scattering minute bits of the virus that may cling to the cloth.
Does this sound like an enormous amount of work? Make no mistake, it is. But it’s necessary if someone in your family contracts norovirus. You don’t want it to spread to the entire family.
There’s currently no treatment for the Norovirus, as antibiotics have no effect against viruses, only bacteria. If you catch norovirus, you’re in for a wretched illness, one you essentially just have to ride out. The best you can do is rest and drink lots of water to prevent dehydration once the active phase (vomiting and diarrhea) ends.
The latest mutation of norovirus is the Sydney strain. Symptoms include:
- Forceful vomiting
- Stomach cramps
Vomiting and diarrhea usually stop after a miserable 10 to 12 hours. Other symptoms may last a week or more.
Norovirus is not dangerous for most people, but can be deadly for the elderly, the very young, or anyone with a compromised immune system. The main dangers are dehydration and the possibility of fainting and sustaining injuries from a fall.
The illness also strikes within two or three days of exposure. However, the contagion precedes symptoms, so it is very easy to spread the virus without knowing. If that isn’t bad enough, the sufferer may remain contagious after symptoms end for up to two weeks, sometimes longer
The virus, which spreads on surfaces touched by an infected person and through tiny droplets aerosolized in the air from vomit, is very hard to kill. It is considered a very robust virus because it is so hardy and can live for a long time, especially on hard surfaces.
Do What You Can to Avoid This Horrible Virus
Please use these tips when the norovirus season comes around. To be extra safe, follow them year-round. Norovirus is not an illness you want to experience, and I hope you and your family will stay healthy.
Update: Another tip for staying healthy and keeping nasty viruses at bay was offered by a reader of this article. (I encourage you to read this information from LongTimeMother in the Comments section, below.) She recommends regular use of garlic and raw honey as possible ways to prevent the illness.
Also, anything you can do to boost your immune system may protect you from viruses and bacterial illnesses. That includes regularly consuming probiotics in yogurt or kefir, eating raw or lightly-steamed fruits and vegetables that contain antioxidants (beta-carotene, Vitamin C and Vitamin E), and eating foods with zinc and selenium. If you can't get enough of these protective nutrients in your food every day, take a high-quality multivitamin and mineral supplement.
© 2013 Jaye Denman