Norovirus (stomach flu) hits just in time for the holidays

Posted: December 18, 2013

The Winchester Star

Winchester — You better watch out, the norovirus is coming to town.

More commonly called the “stomach flu,” the norovirus causes vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal cramping.

Data collected by the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) from hospitals and urgent care centers indicate the virus has arrived and could be a problem as families gather for the holidays.

Although most cases don’t require medical care, the disease is highly contagious.

“It causes more misery than death,” said Dr. Charles Devine, director of the Lord Fairfax Health District, which covers Winchester and the counties of Frederick, Warren, Shenandoah, Page and Clarke. “Most people who are healthy in the prime in life get well at home.”

The norovirus season typically runs from October through May. Last season, the VDH investigated 184 outbreaks statewide. But that is just a fraction of the number of people who came down with the virus, since most people never seek medical help.

Statewide data for this season indicate the virus has hit and will continue to spread.

“When the number of visits to hospitals or urgent cares passes a certain threshold, you can predict when you’re going to see these seasonal illnesses,” Devine said.

That threshold was crossed the week ending Dec. 7.

“That tells us that we’ll likely see it starting in the next couple of weeks,” Devine said.

Anyone who contracts the illness should stay home and drink clear liquids such as ginger ale and water to prevent dehydration.

Patients are contagious before the virus even hits them and remain so several days after symptoms disappear, he said.

The norovirus can survive on surfaces for a long time, so it’s important to keep everything sanitized.

Places that have many people in close quarters such as day care centers, nursing homes, schools and jails are particularly vulnerable to messy outbreaks.

Public health officials offer the following tips to prevent the spread of the virus:

Wash hands often with warm water and soap. Also use alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

Disinfect contaminated surfaces with bleach-based cleaners (or make your own cleaner by adding 5 to 25 tablespoons of chlorine to a gallon of water).

Wash fruits and vegetables completely and cook seafood thoroughly.

Wash soiled clothing and linens with hot water and detergent.

Don’t prepare food for others while you are sick.

Stay at home.

— Contact Robyn Fontes Taylor at rtaylor@winchesterstar.com