January 4, 2013

Winter brings people together around food and festivities. This winter, don’t let your plans be interrupted by norovirus, a highly contagious gastrointestinal illness known as “winter vomiting disease.”

Public health nurses at Multnomah County investigate dozens of outbreaks of norovirus every year. Cases have already been reported this year in schools, dorms, childcare centers, hospitals, at worksites and in retirement homes.

As people stay together indoors, the virus is easily spread. The infection is very contagious and can be quickly transmitted through any contact with vomit or feces.

“The hard thing with norovirus is that it’s really easy to transmit,” says Amy Sullivan, Multnomah County communicable disease manager. “It really takes just a few virus particles on your hands to spread the virus.”

The primary symptoms of norovirus are nausea, vomiting and diarrhea and it usually resolves itself within a couple days. But symptoms of fatigue may last a few days after.

Anyone with norovirus must consume lots of fluids to avoid dehydration, which can potentially be dangerous for the elderly and infants.

There are no antibiotics or vaccines that can be taken to avoid norovirus. For that reason, it’s important to practice basic hygiene.

“Transmission of norovirus is what we call ‘fecal-oral route,’” Sullivan says. “So if people don’t wash their hands between going to the bathroom and making food, that’s a problem.”

It’s also important to clean surfaces that you come into contact with to avoid infecting someone through the environment. Multnomah County recommends a 1:10 bleach solution to clean surfaces and sheets or garments.

People who are sick with norovirus should stay away from work and school. They also should avoid food preparation and caring for anyone who is sick. If you have norovirus, Sullivan recommends that you stay away from others, even a few days after symptoms.

“There is no vaccine for norovirus; no antibiotics,” Sullivan says. “So just take care of yourself and your family: always practice good hand-washing, stay hydrated when you are sick, and try not to pass it on to others.”

For more information and resources about norovirus, please visit the Multnomah County norovirus webpage.