Ask the Doctors: Tips on avoiding norovirus if someone close to you is sick

Dear Reader: Some schools in my district are facing an outbreak of norovirus like you wouldn’t believe. Why is it spreading so fast? What can I do to protect our family?

 

Dear Reader: Norovirus, which has earned the nickname “the vomiting bug,” is extremely contagious. Add stomach cramps, fever, diarrhea and muscle pain to the list of symptoms and you get a good sense of the misery it causes.

It’s the leading cause of gastrointestinal illness in the United States. About 21 million people get norovirus each year. Up to 70,000 of those land in the hospital, and about 800 die. And calling norovirus an “it” is misleading. There are actually many different types of norovirus, so getting sick with one kind doesn’t offer protection from others.

The virus is shed in the feces of an infected individual. That means when someone with norovirus follows poor hygiene after a bowel movement, they spread it to everything that they touch. You can pick up norovirus by eating or drinking something handled by a contaminated person, by touching a contaminated surface and later putting your fingers in your mouth, or through close contact with someone who is sick. The virus is also present in a sick person’s vomit, which adds another layer of risk when caring for sick children.

One of the reasons that outbreaks are so difficult to contain is that the norovirus is a hardy organism. It’s impervious to hot and cold and to many disinfectants. When the virus gains a foothold in crowded and self-contained places like a school, hospital, nursing home or cruise ship, it spreads quickly.

Upping the ante is the fact that it can take up to a week for the norovirus that’s already in your body to make you feel sick. And once your symptoms have ended, the virus can be found in your stool for more than two weeks.

So what do you do when norovirus hits nearby? Keep in mind that just because a neighboring school is affected, that doesn’t automatically mean your child’s will be as well. That said, there are several steps you can take to lessen the risk of infection.

— All family members should wash their hands often. Use soap and running water and scrub for at least 20 seconds. Always wash after using the bathroom and before preparing food.

— Carefully wash all fruits, vegetables and seafood before preparing them. Most outbreaks spread in food service areas, so when a norovirus outbreak is nearby, it’s not a bad idea for your child to bring her own lunch and snacks to school for the duration.

— Explain to your kids how the virus is transmitted. That will help them understand these rules: no fingers in the mouth (always a good idea at any time), and no sharing food or drinks with anyone, even if they don’t look sick.

— If someone in the house does become ill, use a bleach-based disinfectant to clean any surfaces contaminated by vomit or diarrhea. Don’t forget door and drawer knobs, the fridge and the TV remotes.

— If you’re the one who’s sick, don’t prepare, cook or serve food for others.


Send your questions to askthedoctors@mednet.ucla.edu, or write: Ask the Doctors, c/o Media Relations, UCLA Health, 924 Westwood Blvd., Suite 350, Los Angeles, CA, 90095. Owing to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.


 

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