TRENTON — New Jersey is experiencing an increase in norovirus outbreaks and Health Commissioner Mary E. O’Dowd reminds residents to take precautions to protect their health. Colds and flu are not the only infections that thrive in the winter. Norovirus – sometimes called the stomach flu, viral gastroenteritis, or food poisoning – also likes the colder weather.
“The best way to avoid the norovirus is to wash your hands often using soap and water,” O’Dowd said. “Alcohol-based hand cleansers are not effective against this virus.”
Norovirus is a highly contagious viral illness, which begins suddenly and usually causes stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Some people may also experience low-grade fever, chills, headache, body aches and fatigue. Most people recover quickly, but serious complications can occur – particularly in those with other medical conditions. Those infected with norovirus are contagious from the moment they begin to feel sick until as long as two weeks after recovery.
There is no vaccine to prevent norovirus infection and there is no drug to treat it. The best way to reduce the risk of getting norovirus is to:
- Practice good hand hygiene. Wash your hands with soap and water, especially after using the bathroom and changing diapers.
- Carefully wash fruits and vegetables and cook oysters and other shellfish before eating
- Do not prepare food while infected or while you have symptoms of norovirus
- Foodhandlers should wait 3 days after they recover from their illness before returning to work.
- Clean and disinfect contaminated surfaces. After throwing up or having diarrhea, immediately clean surfaces by using bleach-based household cleaner as directed on the product label or a diluted bleach solution (5-25 tablespoons of household bleach per gallon of water). Never use undiluted bleach.
- Remove and wash clothing and linens that may be contaminated with vomit or stool. Handle soiled items carefully to avoid spreading the virus. If available, wear rubber, disposable gloves while handling soiled clothing or linens and wash your hands after handling. Items should be washed with detergent at the maximum cycle length and machine dried.
- Report all outbreaks to the local health department.
Noroviruses are the most common cause of gastroenteritis in the US. It is estimated that each year, more than 20 million cases of gastroenteritis are caused by norovirus. That means that 1 in every 15 Americans will become ill from norovirus each year. In New Jersey, approximately 100 norovirus outbreaks are reported to the health department each fall-winter season.
Noroviruses can spread quickly from person to person in crowded, closed places like long-term care facilities, daycare centers, schools, hotels, hospitals, family dinners, student housing, restaurants, and cruise ships. In other words, places where people often eat food that is prepared or handled by others.
Noroviruses are found in the stool and vomit of infected people. People can become infected by:
- Eating food or drinking liquids that are contaminated with norovirus.
- Touching surfaces or objects that are contaminated with norovirus, and then placing your hand in your mouth.
- Having direct contact with an infected person; for example, by exposure to the virus when caring for or when sharing food, drinks, or eating utensils with an infected person.