I try hard not to diagnose myself. There are so many bugs out there, it really is hard to tell which one has made you sick. And one of my pet peeves is people saying they have the flu when really they have no idea what they have. But I am pretty sure I had norovirus a month ago.
What is norovirus? Norovirus, or winter vomiting bug as it is known in the UK, is infamously known across cruise lines, or anywhere people are kept in close proximity to one another. People often refer to it as the “stomach flu.” It is the cause of 90% of non-bacterial gastrointestinal epidemics in the world. It also causes 50% of food borne illnesses (take that Salmonella, which causes only 18% of food borne illnesses).
Norovirus is known for causing sudden onset gastrointestinal illnesses with severe abdominal pain, violent vomiting and watery diarrhea. Infected people can also have general weakness, muscle aches, headache, low-grade fever and lethargy. I had everything but the headache and fever. You may not feel lucky when you have it (I certainly didn’t), but fortunately it causes only a brief, temporary illness.
Why is norovirus so catchy? Norovirus is extremely contagious; fewer than 20 viral particles are needed to cause an infection. A single vomiting episode expels over 30 million particles. That means if I did have norovirus, I expelled >180 million particles out of my mouth alone. But norovirus doesn’t only love stomach juices, it also comes out the other end. Because it is a virus, which are normally very small (there are exceptions!), the particles aerosolize easily. One flush of the toilet sends millions of particles into the air to settle on any nearby surfaces.
In one study, a patron managed to infect 52 out of 126 people eating at a restaurant. The woman vomited suddenly, and the staff immediately cleaned it up. Within 3 days, others that had been in the restaurant started to fall ill. When the seating arrangement was studied, it became clear that there was a fall out zone around the woman. 90% of the people at the same table as the woman became sick, 70% at adjacent tables became sick and 25% of the patrons on the other side of the restaurant became sick. When I read this, I was amazed that only 3 out of the 8 people living in my house became sick!
How can you prevent getting infected/infecting other people? My biggest concern when I was sick was not spreading it to other people. I isolated myself (that wasn’t hard, no one really wanted to be near me anyway), I washed my hands every time I sneezed, coughed, went the bathroom, vomited, etc. Unfortunately, detergents and alcohol do not work as well at inactivating norovirus, but chlorine does. When my illness was over I sanitized all the bathrooms in the house and any surface I thought I might have touched. Closing the toilet lid every time I flushed would have also been helpful. I was too sick to do anything, but anyone with norovirus should not prepare food. It is one of the most common ways of spreading the virus.
Unlike a lot of viruses, you are not protected from getting norovirus a second, third or (egads, I hope it doesn’t happen) a fourth time. Your immune system doesn’t seem to be able to mount a lasting immunity to the virus and you can be reinfected after a couple of years.
Let’s hope that doesn’t happen. Once was enough for me!
Blogging my way from A to Z as part of the 2014 April A to Z Challenge!