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Norovirus—or stomach flu—can really put your body through the ringer. Here’s what infectious disease experts recommend to outsmart the germs, stay healthy, and recover quickly.
Hello, stomach flu!
Meet winter’s Public Enemy No. 1: norovirus, also known as stomach flu or the cruise ship virus. Norovirus is everywhere: Responsible for around 20 million illnesses in the U.S. every year, it’s associated with more than two-thirds of outbreaks of gastroenteritis (infection of the stomach), almost half of gastroenteritis-related hospitalizations—and 86 percent of deaths. It’s the most common culprit in children’s stomach infections. Here are some clear signs of getting sick you should look out for.
You can catch norovirus from an infected person, a contaminated surface, or contaminated food and water (ick alert: It’s spread by droplets of fecal matter and vomit). It’ll aggravate to your stomach and intestines, which can cause intense pain and nasty vomiting and diarrhea that’ll keep you within a 10-foot radius of a toilet for about a full day or two.
Getting sick can often be inevitable if you’re exposed to the germs. But these tips may help protect you and your family (and help you recover safely if you do fall ill).
Know your enemy
It’s called the cruise ship virus for a reason—norovirus is so contagious that it can spread like wildfire, especially in a confined area like a cruise ship. “When people are acutely ill with norovirus, they shed up to 1 billion viral particles in each gram of stool,” says Robert Frenck, MD, an infectious disease expert and professor in the department of pediatrics at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. “We have done studies that show as few as 1,000 viral particles can make you sick.” What’s more, infected people can continue to shed and spread the virus for up to six weeks after they contracted it, according to Mary Estes, a molecular virologist at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, in Scientific American.
Norovirus is also brilliant in that its very unpleasant side effects—diarrhea, vomiting—cause you to spread it to others, according to Stephen Prescott, MD, president of the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation.
“The best option for staying healthy, of course, is to not be exposed to norovirus in the first place,” he said on the OMRF website. “But if you or a loved one gets sick, isolation and common sense are the best ways to stop the spread.” Here are 20 things the flu virus doesn’t want you to know!
Use soap and water, not hand sanitizer
Alcohol-based hand sanitizers may stop bacterial infections and even cold and some flu strains in their tracks. But when it comes to norovirus, they don’t do much good. That’s because alcohol in the sanitizer can rupture the “envelopes” around viruses like the flu, according to the New York Times. Norovirus doesn’t have such an envelope, so the alcohol doesn’t destroy it.
A CDC study of long-term care facilities published in 2011 found that those where the staff primarily used hand sanitizer to disinfect were six times more likely to have a norovirus outbreak than those where staffers lathered up with soap and water. Make sure you know the surprising things you should not do if you have the flu.