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What is norovirus?
Norovirus—or Norwalk virus or Norwalk-like viruses (NLV)—are viral infections that cause an abrupt onset of digestive symptoms. The condition is often called viral gastroenteritis by doctors. Recovery occurs without specific treatment. Twenty million Americans contract norovirus infections each year. Norovirus is also a health threat to international travelers and has caused epidemics on cruise ships affecting thousands of travelers at sea.
How is norovirus transmitted?
Noroviruses are extremely contagious. Illness spreads rapidly when people ingest food or beverages or touch objects or people that are contaminated with the virus. Sharing silverware with an infected person is an excellent method of developing a norovirus infection. The illness can cause havoc when it strikes contained populations, such as in day-care centers, nursing homes, schools, or cruise ships. People can spread the disease to others up to two weeks after they recover or even before they become ill themselves.
What are the symptoms?
Typical symptoms are nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal cramps. Symptoms can occur as early as 12 hours after initial exposure. The illness generally lasts 48 hours, but some individuals can remain symptomatic for several days. While the virus is not lethal, and recovery is expected, ill patients can suffer from dehydration. This is a more critical issue in young children, the elderly, and in those with a compromised immune system.
How is norovirus diagnosed?
Physicians often suspect norovirus based on your symptoms and your own particular circumstances. For example, if you and 100 other tourists on a cruise ship became ill, then norovirus will be a strong suspect. There are special tests that can be performed on your stool that can establish the diagnosis. While this may not benefit you as an individual if you are ill, it is valuable to health investigators who will try to track down the source of the norovirus infection and prevent further spread to others.
Is treatment available?
Viral diseases generally are not treated with specific medications like antibiotics. Fluids and oral rehydration solutions may be needed to prevent dehydration.
Can norovirus be prevented?
There is no vaccine available. In addition, there may be no way to avoid illness when an outbreak has developed. However, as soon as norovirus infections are suspected, healthy individuals can take many precautions to minimize the risk of becoming ill. Practice frequent and scrupulous hand washing, especially after using restroom facilities. Wash any clothing which may be contaminated in hot water. Disinfect surfaces that may have been exposed to the virus with a bleach-based product. Fruits and vegetables should be thoroughly washed. Food that has been in contact with an ill person should be discarded.
It is also recommended that direct contact with ill patients, or the bathrooms they use, be avoided. Finally, ill patients should not serve as the family chef. They should not prepare or handle food for anyone else.