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Norovirus is, in the best case, violently annoying. In the worst, it can kill. What can you do to protect yourself from this leading cause of gastroenteritis this winter?

With the flu season well underway, you may be wondering whether healthy people should get a fly shot to protect others and themselves, or whether taking large doses of vitamin C can help prevent the flu and common cold. You may even be worried about things like pneumonia, strep throat, and croup. 

Is norovirus on your radar, though? If it isn't, it should be, and here's why. 

What Is Norovirus?

Norovirus made my frail and vulnerable late mother — then living in a retirement facility where such things spread easily — violently ill, to the point my sisters and I were sure it was going to be the end of her. A group of viruses that leads to gastroenteritis, an inflammation of the digestive system, it causes stomach pain, nausea and vomiting, and diarrhea. What's more, there is currently no specific treatment for the virus, which is generally brief but severe. [1]

That might not sound very severe to you if you're young and healthy, but vomiting and diarrhea can both quickly lead to lead to severe dehydration, which can still kill. Indeed, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that at least 50,000 children die from norovirus-related acute gastroenteritis on an annual basis! As always, the elderly and people with compromised immune systems are other vulnerable groups. [2]

Norovirus is, in short, something you'd really rather not have if you're a healthy working-age adult, and it's something to genuinely fear if you fall into a more vulnerable category. Because norovirus can be so dangerous, a vaccine may be in the works. Developing such a vaccine poses challenges, however, not least because norovirus comes in different strains. [3] The fact that you're more than a shot away from protection against norovirus doesn't mean that you can do nothing to prevent this highly-contagious virus, though. 

What Can You Do To Prevent Norovirus This Winter?

Because norovirus — which is, like the flu, more prevalent in winter [2] — is so contagious, you want to guard yourself against the possibility of it being transmitted to you via these routes as much as possible [4]:

  • Direct bodily contact with a person who currently has the virus. 
  • Contact with their feces or vomit. 
  • Contact with surfaces touched by people with norovirus, which includes things like bedrails and remote controls, but also drinking glasses or food. 

Preventing this kind of contact — more simply said, avoiding touching things that contain the virus and then catching it yourself — certainly ideally involves some actions you probably don't normally take. When the CDC talks about disinfecting surfaces on which norovirus might live, they say [5]:

"After you vomit or have diarrhea, always thoroughly clean and disinfect the entire area immediately."

I'd add the caveat that many people with norovirus are actually going to be too ill to do this for themselves, and that means that helping a relative, friend, or neighbor clean up their bodily messes is a prime opportunity to catch a virus you don't already have yourself. You'll want to break out the rubber gloves, wipe the area with disposable tissue, and then thoroughly clean it with bleach or another antibacterial product. The trick here is, as the CDC also points out, to leave that to soak in for about five minutes to give your product the chance to kill the germs. 

Wear gloves when you put soiled bedding, towels, and clothes in the laundry, too, and wash them at higher temperatures if they can take it. Machine drying is also preferred.

Note that folks with norovirus shouldn't be preparing or cooking any food for others — this, again, is a recipe for disaster. If you're caring for someone else with the virus, remember that cleaning kitchen items (including cutlery, dishes, and glasses) isn't the same as disinfecting them. It is perfectly safe to use diluted bleach when doing the dishes, as long as you rinse very thoroughly afterward. This will help kill most germs. Dishwashers are, however, more effective — especially if you have access to one that features a sterilization cycle! [6]

As for basically everything else a person with norovirus touches, wipe it down with bleach or antibacterial wipes — clean, but don't forget to disinfect as well. The most commonly touched surfaces may include light switches, doorknobs, faucets, nightstands, doorways, and of course also buckets (see: vomiting) and toilets. 

Finally, research shows that most people don't wash their hands properly [7]. Don't be one of them, because you are sure to go on to touch your nose, mouth, or eyes with germ-filled hands, and subsequently end up with norovirus or any other kind of bug. Give your hands a proper, soapy, scrub that lasts at least 20 seconds, and dry them after. In a norovirus context, repeat this every time you touch a person who has it, or stuff they've handled or that's (sorry for being graphic) come out of them. [8]

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