Sometimes norovirus is called “food poisoning” or “stomach flu,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“Food poisoning can be caused by noroviruses. But, other germs and chemicals also can cause food poisoning,” according to the CDC website.
Norovirus can cause gastroenteritis, an inflammation of the stomach and intestines. It is highly contagious, contracted from an infected person and by touching contaminated food, water, or surfaces. Symptoms include diarrhea, nausea, stomach pain, and vomiting.
"Transmission is fecal-oral and most commonly is spread through ingestion of contaminated food or drinks prepared by someone who is ill or shedding norovirus,” Children’s National Health System infectious disease specialist David Hyun, MD, said. “It also can be transmitted by contact with contaminated environments and surfaces and then touching the mouth."
Norovirus outbreak makes headlines
An outbreak of what health officials believe was the norovirus closed prompted the closure last Friday of an elementary school in Alexandria, Va. School officials at John Adams Elementary School closed the school so a cleaning service could disinfect all the surfaces.
The stomach illness affected almost 200 students and more than 30 staff members who stayed home or left school on Wednesday or Thursday, the Washington Post reported.
“Norovirus is the most common cause of acute gastroenteritis in the United States,” according to the CDC . “Each year, it causes 19-21 million illnesses and contributes to 56,000-71,000 hospitalizations and 570-800 deaths.”
Norovirus is not related to the flu or influenza, a respiratory illness caused by the influenza virus.
“I am not aware of any spikes above baseline in lab-confirmed cases of norovirus at Children’s. That's not unusual even in the winter since practitioners may not necessarily test for norovirus unless we are suspecting an outbreak situation,” Dr. Hyun said. “Norovirus is present in the community all year long but does tend to increase during the winter period.”
Preventing norovirus infection
Good hand washing is one of the best ways to reduce norovirus from spreading within your family, according to Dr. Hyun, especially after using the restroom or before preparing food.
“Carefully cleaning fruits and vegetables before preparing them and cooking oyster or other shellfish thoroughly also helps. And, of course, whoever is sick with norovirus should not be preparing food for others,” he said.
Other tips on reducing norovirus within your family:
- Wash your hands thoroughly with warm, soapy water after using the bathroom, after changing diapers, before preparing foods, and before eating.
- Wash your hands more often when someone in your household is sick.
- Clean and disinfect surfaces with a household bleach solution immediately after vomiting or diarrheal accidents.
- Steam oysters before eating them.
- Avoid preparing food for others while you have symptoms, and for at least three days after you recover.