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I have a healthy fear of the stomach virus. It’s insanely contagious and, when I get it, I get it BAD. Right now, my entire Facebook news feed is filled with mentions of the disease so I thought it would be a good time to remind everyone what the stomach virus is and how to avoid it.

First thing: If you feel nauseous and are experiencing vomiting, watery non-bloody diarrhea, and abdominal pain, you’ve probably got norovirus, which is the second most frequent cause of illness after the common cold. (Other symptoms may include low-grade fever, headache, chills, muscle aches, and fatigue.) Symptoms start between 24 and 48 hours after exposure, but can occur in as little as 12 hours after exposure.

You get it by eating or drinking something that’s been contaminated with stool or vomit of an infected person. For instance, the person making your bagel had the disease last week, went to the bathroom, and didn’t wash up carefully enough, transferring the germ onto your bagel. You can also get it by touching something contaminated (a coffee pot at a convenience store, your child’s blankie, a door handle, a gas pump, an ATM) and then putting your hands or fingers in your mouth. Heck, you can even get it by sharing a drink or food with someone who is contagious or just being around someone who is sick since the norovirus can — albeit less frequently — go airborne. The worst part: You can get the disease more than once. Unlike certain bacterial diseases, you don’t create long-term antibodies against the stomach flu. Antibodies last between two and six months, according to the CDC, which is why some people get the norovirus every fall or winter when the disease is most active.

From the Centers for Disease Control: “The CDC estimates that each year more than 20 million cases of acute gastroenteritis are caused by noroviruses. That means about 1 in every 15 Americans will get norovirus illness each year. Norovirus is also estimated to cause over 70,000 hospitalizations and 800 deaths each year in the United States.”

While catching this annoying, painful disease is easy, it’s just as easy to avoid catching it. Want to stay healthy? Follow these tips:

  1. Wash, wash, and then wash some more: Every expert out there says the best way to avoid getting sick is to wash your hands frequently and keep them out of your mouth. Suds up using plain old soap and sing the “Happy Birthday” song twice. Help little ones wash up religiously so they don’t wipe in the bathroom and then wipe the germs all over your hands and house and TV remotes. (One thing to note: The CDC reports that antibacterial soaps containing triclosan and quarternary ammonium compounds have not been found to be effective against the stomach virus, another reason to avoid them.) If you’re not near a sink, use alcohol-based hand sanitizers containing at least 60 percent alcohol. Personally, I have Purell in my car, in my bag, on the kitchen counter, and in my gym bag. (Did I mention how bad I get the bug when I get sick???)
  2. Clean with bleach: This is one of those “natural-as-possible” moments. Greenies hate chlorine bleach, but it’s the best thing to use if you or someone in your home has the bug because it actually kills the virus. Make a bleach solution using 5 to 25 tablespoons household bleach and a gallon of water, and use it to disinfect all hard surfaces. Don’t forget “frequent touch” spots such as door knobs, hand rails on stairs, light switches, refrigerator and toaster handles, your PC mouse and keyboard, touchscreens, and your telephones. Of course, take care not to get bleach into your electronics. Wipe screens and remotes with a rag or paper towel dampened with the bleach solution; Don’t spray it directly onto your devices.
  3. Practice good food safety. According to the CDC, an estimated five million cases of food-borne norovirus infections happen each year via food contamination.  That said, carefully wash raw fruits and veggies before eating them, and be aware of how people are preparing your food. (Me? I avoid all prepared food during stomach virus season.) Don’t knowingly eat food that’s been prepared by someone who was sick recently, either.
  4. Disinfect laundry — especially sheets and towels: My mom used to strip the beds after we were sick, wash our sheets in bleach, and hang them out to dry in the sun — even in the winter. Seems like she had the right idea. The norovirus can spread really easily via contaminated pillowcases and towels. Makes sense, right? Disinfect laundry by (again, this is not exactly a green practice) washing with hot water and drying on “high.” Use bleach if you’re dealing with poopy or vomited-on items such as sheets and towels. Don’t forget to disinfect your washer afterward by running it empty with bleach and soap. Another tip: Make sure you wash your hands after transferring wet laundry from the washer to the dryer.
  5. Keep sick kids and adults quarantined:  This is a no-brainer. Keep sickies in their bedrooms, and, if you have more than one bathroom, assign them their own commode that’s off-limits to the rest of the family. Bleach-bomb it before you let anyone use it again.
  6. Follow the two-week rule. The stomach bug sheds from your intestines for up to two weeks after the last symptoms end. This means you and your kids are contagious long after your last stomach cramp. Don’t get lax about washing, disinfecting, or sharing food during the shedding phase.
  7. Do a home sweep.  Aside from TV remotes, the virus can and does live on hard surfaces as well as on carpeting and floors for up to a week. Don’t forget to disinfect things that you touch all the time but rarely clean like steering wheels and your child’s well-loved toys. If you have babies or toddlers make sure binkies, diaper pails, bottles, and crib rails are disinfected, too.  (We actually used the stomach virus to wean my oldest –then 13 months — off her binky since she didn’t take it when sick, and didn’t remember it once she got better.)

This is a lot of information, but hopefully — with a little luck and a lot of Purell and bleach solution — you’ll avoid getting the bug. And one final word of warning: While most people recover very quickly from the stomach virus, make sure you stay hydrated and call your doctor if you have any questions, especially if you or a family member fall into a high risk group: the elderly, ill, or very young. Dehydration can happen very quickly, and can be very dangerous. Here’s a link to the CDC’s guidelines for management of acute diarrhea.

Did you get the stomach bug this year? If so, how did you manage? Please feel free to post any tips you’ve discovered for managing the disease.

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