Each winter, right around flu season, some Northern Virginia residents get uncontrollably sick with severe nausea and diarrhea. Not sure what the illness is, infected people suffer through constant trips to the bathroom and the uncomfortable symptoms for roughly 24 to 48 hours.
Many infected people do not realize the very contagious illness has a name, and can be prevented.
Called norovirus illness, which includes a group of viruses, the disease is more commonly known as the stomach flu, or winter vomiting disease.
“We have had some outbreaks of norovirus this year,” said Holly Clifton, district epidemiologist for the Fairfax County Health Department. “Unfortunately, we have it every year.”
Because the disease is not one of the county’s reportable diseases, no numbers are available to indicate how many people were infected with the illness this year compared to last year, Clifton said.
“It’s around Northern Virginia right now,” said Dr. David Goodfriend, director of health for the Loudoun County Health Department. “I had it in my family last week.”
Symptoms of norovirus illness generally include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and stomach cramping, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Infected people can also have a low-grade fever, chills, headache, muscle aches and fatigue.
The virus is found in the stool or vomit of infected people, and can be transmitted several ways. These include eating food or drinking liquids that are contaminated with norovirus, touching surfaces or objects contaminated with norovirus and then placing a hand in the mouth, or having direct contact with another person, such as caring for or sharing foods and eating utensils with someone who is infected and showing symptoms, according to the CDC.
Because the disease can be easily transmitted in close settings, such as schools, nursing and day care facilities and jails, it is important that people working in these areas pay special attention to people infected with the illness, Goodfriend said.
“The higher risk populations, like in a jail where people are forced to be together,” he said, “you want to make sure they’re doing what they can to prevent the illness.”
The number one preventative measure is to thoroughly wash hands, Clifton said.
“Hand washing, hand washing, hand washing,” she said. “Before you eat, before you prepare food, after you use the bathroom. Wash your hands.”
Because norovirus is durable, it can live up to 14 days or longer on surfaces like counter tops, or the toilet where someone was sick, she said. If an infected person gets a microscopic particle of diarrhea or vomit on their hands and then touches a counter top, even that can survive and ultimately infect a healthy person.
“The transmittal can stop with the hand washing,” said Clifton. “If someone has been sick, cleaning is very important.”
Because it is such a resilient virus, using bleach wipes or other cleaning products and sprays on countertops and toilets may not kill the illness; it might only spread it around. To ensure the germs are gone, a 10 percent bleach and water solution is recommended, Clifton said.
“Norovirus is pretty easy to receive,” she said. “It’s special in that the onset is so acute. You’re feeling fine and then the next thing you know you’re vomiting before you can even get to the bathroom.”
The illness is usually brief with symptoms lasting only about one or two days. Generally, children experience more vomiting than adults, according to the CDC.
Because norovirus is a virus, no antibiotics are able to treat the illness. The best treatment is rest and drinking a lot of water to ensure those sick do not become dehydrated due to the vomiting and diarrhea, Clifton said. While the disease does not usually send people to the hospital, if infected persons do not stay hydrated — especially children and seniors — they could suffer serious dehydration.
“For the average, otherwise healthy person, it’s two rotten days of vomiting and possible diarrhea,” said Goodfriend.
Health departments continue to urge residents to wash their hands or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer when soap and water are not available.
“Prevention is much better than treatment because there really is no treatment,” said Goodfriend. “Other than waiting it out and drinking a lot of water.”