Preventative Health: Norovirus

What do you and the athletes competing at the Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang, South Korea have in common? Both of you are vulnerable to falling ill by infection from the norovirus. As of writing of this article, almost 250 cases of norovirus have been reported and confirmed at the Winter Olympic Games, affecting staffers, competitors, and attendees alike.

Although it is also known as the stomach flu, norovirus is actually in no way related to the influenza virus. Instead, the norovirus is a viral infection caused by a group of viruses in the Caliciviridae family. Norovirus can be contracted several times throughout one’s lifetime, as there are several different strains of the virus. It is also extremely contagious, and can be spread very quickly in confined spaces, such as schools, daycare centers, and cruise ships. Outbreaks of Norovirus typically occur in the winter months, and the illness has even been dubbed “Winter Vomiting Disease” for its predictable seasonal outbreaks and most common symptom.

The norovirus is typically transmitted through contaminated food or water. In fact, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cite the norovirus as, “the leading cause of illness and outbreaks from contaminated food in the United States.” For this reason, norovirus is often transmitted by infected food service workers when they touch the food with their bare hands prior to serving it. Norovirus can also be transmitted by merely touching contaminated surfaces or objects and putting one’s fingers in one’s mouth. Sharing utensils or food with an infected individual can also lead to transmission of the virus.

According to the CDC, norovirus causes the stomach and intestines to become inflamed and irritated, also known as “acute gastroenteritis”. The most prevalent symptoms include stomach pain, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Other symptoms can also include fever, headaches and body aches. Symptoms such as the above often develop within a half a day to two days of becoming infected with the virus. Because of excessive diarrhea vomiting, victims of the virus are at high risk of becoming dehydrated. Symptoms of dehydration involve: dry mouth, feeling light headed when standing up and decrease in urine output.

Unfortunately, there is no treatment for norovirus. Antibiotics cannot be used because the illness is caused by a virus, not a bacterium. The CDC recommends preventing the main problem of dehydration by drinking plenty of fluids. For mild dehydration, one may drink sports drinks. However, to replenish nutrients being lost, CDC recommends “oral rehydration fluids” which can be bought over the counter. In regards to severe dehydration, hospitalization may be warranted where the person will have to be administered with IV fluids.

Given how highly contagious norovirus infection can be, it can spread very quickly on college campuses, especially in residential dorms. One of the first lines of defense that one can use to prevent infection is to wash one’s hands thoroughly and often with soap and water. Although alcohol-based hand-sanitizers can also be useful, they should not be used as a replacement for hand washing. Other precautions can be taken in food preparation by carefully washing raw fruits and vegetables and cooking seafood adequately prior to consumption. Furthermore, if you think you have been infected with the norovirus, it is important to not prepare food for others until two days have passed since your symptoms have gone away.

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