Protect yourself from extremely contagious norovirus

Unfortunately hand sanitizer can't kill norovirus, the contagious stomach bug that has forced the closure of an entire school district in Colorado. Learn how to stay healthy.
November 25th, 2019
norovirus and hand sanitizer - sick child puts her head down on her books at school
Norovirus is extremely contagious and has forced the closure of an entire school district in Colorado. Hand sanitizer won’t kill the virus. Photo: Getty Images.

Norovirus outbreaks in Colorado have been so severe in recent days that 40 schools – and an entire school district in Grand Junction – have shut down, while one in 10 cadets at the Air Force Academy north of Colorado Springs have fallen ill.

You might wonder how you can protect yourself from this extremely unpleasant – and extremely contagious – stomach bug, known for sickening hundreds of people at a time on cruises, in schools and in nursing homes.

Here’s one surprising fact: hand sanitizer won’t protect you.

 How to prevent norovirus

  • Hand sanitizer doesn’t kill the virus.
  • Wash hands frequently with soap and warm or hot water.
  • Use detergents with bleach to clean surfaces.

Symptoms:

  • Nausea.
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Dizziness and lack of urination can be signs of severe dehydration.

Treatment:

  • No medication can halt the symptoms.
  • Consume plenty of fluids.
  • Try to eat bland foods like crackers.

When you need to see a doctor:

  • If a baby or child becomes lethargic, has dry diapers and can’t consume any liquids, call your doctor right away.
  • Most older children and adults don’t need to see a doctor for norovirus.
  • As long as the sick person can stay hydrated, the symptoms should pass with time.
  • If vomiting and diarrhea last longer than 36 hours or if people can’t hold down any liquids and stop urinating, they may need fluids in a hospital.

Resources:

Pediatric care

Primary care

Virtual visit

Norovirus is an extremely crafty bug and each particle comes with it’s own protective shield of sorts to help it survive as long as possible.

“Alcohol can’t break the shield. A detergent like soap can most of the time,” said Dr. Michelle Barron, medical director of infection prevention and control at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital on the Anschutz Medical Campus.

“Be really diligent with hand washing. Make sure you’re washing your hands really well with soap and water and that you’re cleaning surfaces with bleach. Also, be very conscious about food preparation,” Barron said.

An expert in contagious diseases, Barron said hand sanitizers, which contain alcohol, can be useful to protect people from other illnesses like colds and the flu. So, don’t throw out your hand sanitizer.

But, if you, your children or your co-workers are dealing with stomach illnesses, you should stay home so you don’t spread the virus and wash your hands very frequently with good old soap and warm water.

Barron also recommends cleaning surfaces as often as possible with bleach-based detergents, which can kill norovirus.

While Barron protects herself well from contagious diseases, she has gotten norovirus herself. Once, when she was traveling, she grabbed a sandwich at the airport to eat on the plane. A little while later, she started feeling lousy. At first, like many people suffering from stomach viruses, she thought she had food poisoning.

But, once she returned home and was stuck in the bathroom for about 24 hours, she realized that she was suffering from norovirus instead.

“It’s a very infectious virus that causes pretty severe diarrhea and vomiting for 24 to 36 hours. If anybody in your household gets it, it’s just so infectious that everyone around you is likely to get it,” Barron said.

Symptoms from food poisoning, in contrast, usually last just a couple of hours. And food poisoning typically stems from bacteria that have developed in food, like mayonnaise dishes that need to remain cold and have sat out in the sun too long.

Unfortunately, people who are infected with norovirus sometimes don’t know they have it until they get sick. In the meantime, they can touch food or surfaces in schools like desks and notebooks. The virus stays alive on the surface, then when other people touch the same spot, the infection spreads.

“It only takes one or two particles of this virus to make you sick,” Barron said.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, each person with norovirus can shed billions of particles of the disease.

Norovirus is the most common culprit for stomach bugs, but just like flu viruses, there are many types of norovirus. And, unlike the flu, there’s no vaccine.

So, once you get norovirus, all you can do is let the virus run its course and try to protect people around you from getting sick.

“In terms of what to do to treat it, the No. 1 thing is to stay home. There’s no treatment. You have to let it run its course,” Barron said.

Barron said norovirus is common this time of year because people are gathering and eating together.

She encourages hosts to be sure to use utensils to serve food so people don’t accidentally spread illnesses with their hands.

Food on cruise ships can serve as sources of infection.

“Cruises have these huge buffets. Everyone goes and samples the food. Hands and foods can be infected. And, once you ingest the virus, you’re going to get sick,” Barron said.

Because norovirus is so contagious, she thinks school officials on Colorado’s Western Slope were very wise to shut down and clean the schools as best as they could.

“Closing down schools in a whole county is a big deal. But, it’s very wise to shut them down. They have to clean and clean and clean until it’s all gone. Otherwise, the norovirus just keeps cycling,” Barron said. “It’s seems extreme, but you have to get everyone out of the situation. Then, if they haven’t been exposed, they’re safe.”

About the author

Katie Kerwin McCrimmon is a proud Colorado native. She attended Colorado College, thanks to a merit scholarship from the Boettcher Foundation, and worked as a park ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park during summer breaks from college. She is also a storyteller. She loves getting to know UCHealth patients and providers and sharing their inspiring stories.

Katie spent years working as a journalist at the Rocky Mountain News and was a finalist with a team of reporters for the Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of a deadly wildfire in Glenwood Springs in 1994. Katie was the first reporter in the U.S. to track down and interview survivors of the tragic blaze, which left 14 firefighters dead.

She covered an array of beats over the years, including the environment, politics, education and criminal justice. She also loved covering stories in Congress and at the U.S. Supreme Court during a stint as the Rocky’s reporter in Washington, D.C.

Katie then worked as a reporter for an online health news site before joining the UCHealth team in 2017.

Katie and her husband Cyrus, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer, have three children. The family loves traveling together anywhere from Glacier National Park to Cuba.