It’s not just on cruise ships. Norovirus — the most common cause of gastroenteritis, or “stomach flu” — is everywhere. And it’s often difficult to prevent.
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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 1 in 15 U.S. residents gets sick with norovirus every year. Common symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain and, on occasion, a low-grade fever.
“People come into contact with norovirus through contaminated foods, contaminated water and infected individuals who are preparing and handling food, as well as from person-to-person spread,” says Camille Sabella, MD, Director of the Center for Pediatric Infectious Diseases. It’s common in places such as restaurants, cruise ships and schools, but also at day care centers, nursing homes and other public places.
Norovirus typically peaks between the months of December and April. “That’s very likely related to people being closer together, where there’s an opportunity for person-to-person contact,” Dr. Sabella says.
It’s quite contagious, but there are ways to keep yourself and your family healthy this winter.
1. Wash your hands
It sounds simple because it is. Frequent hand-washing is perhaps the best way to prevent norovirus. Work up a good lather with soap, and wash for at least 20 seconds.
Avoid contact with anyone who’s recently had vomiting or diarrhea if you can. If you’re exposed to a sick person, wash your hands immediately. If you are caring for someone with norovirus, wash your hands every time you come into contact with them. Hand sanitizer also may help as an addition to hand-washing but not as a substitution.
2. Keep your hands away from your face
To get this virus, you basically have to ingest it. That means you should consciously avoid touching your face. If you’ve touched something that’s contaminated with the virus, touching your mouth, nose or eyes before you get a chance to wash your hands makes it easier for the virus to enter your body.
3. Pay attention to your surroundings
You don’t have to be a food inspector to spot bad safety practices. If you’re getting takeout from a restaurant where the food is not being handled appropriately — for instance, if people are directly touching the food without gloves — then find another place to eat.
4. Practice food safety at home
Remember tip No. 1 about hand-washing? It is especially important in the kitchen because norovirus spreads by ingestion. As you prepare food, wash your hands frequently — especially right before serving anything to others. Also, if you have symptoms or know you are sick, stay out of the kitchen and avoid spreading the virus to others.
5. Use appropriate cleaning methods
It might take several days for someone who is infected with norovirus to develop symptoms, Dr. Sabella notes. That means you can’t always keep it out of your house — and norovirus is difficult to contain once it has entered your house.
Still, you can take steps to clean up and prevent its spread. For example, focus on scrubbing any commonly touched surfaces such as doorknobs and counter tops. Just remember — the main sources of transmission are contaminated foods and person-to-person contact. That means wiping a doorknob isn’t going to be as effective as your absolute best prevention tip: Wash your hands.
Norovirus can’t be treated with antibiotics, so if you catch it, simply wait it out and rest. “Drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration, wash your hands frequently and avoid contact with others to keep the virus from spreading,” Dr. Sabella says.