The Pennsylvania Patient Safety Authority data shows a significant increase in cases of norovirus and norovirus-like gastrointestinal illnesses in the first quarter of 2010, particularly in nursing homes. Norovirus and norovirus-like cases in Pennsylvania nursing homes increased from 813 cases at the end of 2009 (October-December) and then surged to 4,090 cases in the beginning of 2010 (January-March). Pennsylvania hospitals also reported an increase in norovirus and norovirus-like cases in the beginning of 2010. The Authority issued guidance and an educational toolkit for nursing homes and hospitals to use to avoid the virus and control outbreaks. For residents and patients, the Authority distributes consumer tips so everyone is aware of the risks and does everything possible to protect themselves from norovirus and other gastrointestinal illnesses.
How You Can Protect Yourself from Norovirus
Norovirus is a highly contagious severe gastrointestinal illness commonly referred to as the “stomach flu.” The virus spreads through the vomit and feces of people sick with the illness. Contact with only a few particles can make you sick. There is no vaccine and antibiotics are not effective against norovirus. Norovirus spreads easily and rapidly through confined areas such as households, daycare centers, schools and healthcare facilities. It is most frequently seen in the winter months.
How is Norovirus spread?
Anyone can get norovirus. People can swallow the virus and become sick from the following:
- Eating food or drinking liquids contaminated with norovirus from an infected food handler or server.
- Eating raw shellfish harvested from waters contaminated with raw sewage.
- Touching contaminated objects (faucets, utensils, linen) and then putting contaminated objects or fingers into the mouth.
- Contact with the vomit and feces of people who are ill with the virus while taking care of them or sharing food or utensils.
What are the symptoms of Norovirus?
Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach cramps, low fever, chills, headache and fatigue. Symptoms usually start as early as 12 hours after exposure to the virus. Vomiting is more common in children. Most people get better on their own in about three days. If you experience a decrease in urination, have dry mouth and throat, and feel dizzy when standing up, you may be dehydrated because of vomiting and diarrhea. This is a serious problem that may require hospitalization. Symptoms can be more severe especially in infants, older adults and people with chronic illnesses. If they persist you should seek medical attention.
How to Prevent or Care for Norovirus at Home
- All family members should wash their hands with soap and water before and after food preparation, using the bathroom, changing diapers, caring for sick persons, or cleaning soiled surfaces or linens.
- Preventive hand washing should be done for 15 to 20 seconds, and for at least one minute if sick or caring for someone who is sick.
- Carefully wash fruits and vegetables, and steam oysters before eating them.
- Do not share food, utensils or drinking containers.
- Anyone ill with diarrhea should not prepare food for other people.
- Immediately wash clothing and linens soiled with vomit or diarrhea in hot soapy water.
- Immediately clean and then disinfect surfaces that are soiled with feces or vomit or touched frequently (e.g., door knobs, light switches) with bleach-based household cleaner. Fresh cleaning solution can be made with one and a half cups of bleach to a gallon of water.
- If sick, rest in bed and stay home from work or school until you recover. People who have had the virus are still contagious after symptoms end, so healthcare, daycare and foodservice workers should stay out of work for three days after they have recovered from symptoms.
- Drink plenty of fluids (e.g., chew on ice chips, sip water) to avoid dehydration.
*Adapted from information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Pennsylvania Department of Health.
For more information about norovirus, go to the 2010 December Pennsylvania Patient Safety Advisory article, “Controlling the Annual Threat of Norovirus Gastroenteritis Outbreaks,” at www.patientsafetyauthority.org or click here.