With the country in the midst of a record year for influenza cases, doctors at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation are warning Oklahomans to watch out for another violent and virulent illness called the norovirus.
Often called the stomach flu or associated with food poisoning, norovirus is a highly contagious virus that can cause intense cramping, vomiting and diarrhea and can lead to serious dehydration, said OMRF President Stephen Prescott, M.D.
“Norovirus gets spread around every year during the winter and spring,” he said. “Much like the influenza virus, the norovirus mutates as it spreads. In March 2012, a new strain of norovirus called GII.4 Sydney began making the rounds in Australia, was spread to Europe and now has landed in America. The new strain could account for an increase in transmission this year.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control, norovirus is the most common cause of acute gastroenteritis in the United States, causing about 21 million illnesses annually. Worldwide about 70,000 are hospitalized, leading to 800 deaths.
“Norovirus begins like most viruses — you inhale it or eat it or rub it into your eyes without even knowing,” Prescott said. “Once it’s in the system, the virus moves to your small intestine and hijacks cells, forcing them to replicate the virus.”
After the cells fill with copies of the virus, they burst open, release more virus into your system and begin repeating the process. It could take fewer than 100 norovirus particles to start the illness, according to the CDC.
When the immune system catches on and begins fighting the illness, the inflammation in the lower intestine causes vomiting, diarrhea and stomach cramping, Prescott said.
“This is what is so ingenious about the norovirus — the unpleasant side effects of the immune reaction cause you to spread it,” he said. “Worse still, the virus is hardy, so it can last on surfaces for a couple of days, waiting to infect someone new.”
Even though the symptoms only last three or four days, a person can still transmit norovirus for around 48 hours after the vomiting and nausea stop.
“The best option for staying healthy, of course, is to not be exposed to norovirus in the first place,” he said. “But if you or a loved one gets sick, isolation and common sense are the best ways to stop the spread.”
• Those who are ill or have recently been ill should not prepare food or care for others, because the virus can still be passed on.
• Wash hands frequently with hot, soapy water and supplement with hand sanitizer.
• Clean and disinfect all surfaces, especially in the bathroom, with a chlorine bleach solution of five or more tablespoons of bleach per gallon of water.
• Wash produce and thoroughly cook shellfish.
• Wash laundry thoroughly and wear rubber or disposable gloves to handle soiled items, then wash hands immediately afterward.
“If it sounds like hard work, that’s because it is,” Prescott said. “But as difficult as it may be, it’s preferable to contracting the norovirus or passing it on to family members or coworkers.”