Health Break | Published February 2, 2009 | Written by Marlene Stetson, RN, CIC, director of infection prevention and control, Mount Nittany Medical Center

Norovirus Facts

The Pennsylvania Department of Health recently released a Health Alert related to an above-average season for Norovirus. According to the Alert, the increase has been noted in communities and institutional settings throughout the State.

Noroviruses are a group of viruses that cause gastroenteritis. They are best known for causing widespread illness affecting passengers on cruise ships. Outbreaks in many other settings including day care centers, long-term care centers and other healthcare facilities also occur.

Symptoms of norovirus illness include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach cramps and sometimes muscle aches and fever. Symptoms often begin abruptly and usually last 1-3 days. Symptoms can be so severe that people become dehydrated, making it a very serious illness for some.

Though some people describe this type of illness as the stomach flu, norovirus is not related to the flu (influenza). True flu causes a set of respiratory-type, not gastrointestinal symptoms.

Norovirus if highly contagious and can spread easily from one person to another. People with norovirus can be contagious for up to two weeks after recovery, long after they are symptom-free and feeling better.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, you can decrease your chance of coming in contact with norovirus by following these preventive steps:

  • Frequently wash your hands, especially after toilet visits and changing diapers and before eating or preparing food.
  • Carefully wash fruits and vegetables, and steam oysters before eating them.
  • Thoroughly clean and disinfect contaminated surfaces immediately after an episode of illness by using a bleach-based household cleaner.
  • Immediately remove and wash clothing or linens that may be contaminated with virus after an episode of illness (use hot water and soap).
  • Flush or discard any vomitus and/or stool in the toilet and make sure that the surrounding area is kept clean.

Currently, there is no medication to treat norovirus and there is no vaccine to prevent infection. Norovirus infection cannot be treated with antibiotics. Antibiotics only work on bacteria.

Treatment for norovirus focuses on treating the symptoms and measures to prevent dehydration. When people are ill with vomiting and diarrhea, they should drink plenty of fluids. Dehydration among young children, the elderly, the sick, can be common, and it is the most serious health effect that can result from norovirus infection. By drinking oral rehydration fluids (ORF), juice, or water, people can reduce their chance of becoming dehydrated. Sports drinks do not replace the nutrients and minerals lost during this illness.

Persons who are infected with norovirus should not prepare food while they have symptoms and for 3 days after they recover from their illness. This is one way others can be infected by the virus. Any food that may have been contaminated by an ill person should be disposed of properly.

The Medical Center also recommends persons with norovirus-like symptoms and those recovering from this illness wash or sanitizer their hands often and avoid places with crowds, especially places with very young children, the elderly or those with weakened immune systems. These places include daycares, preschools, nursing homes, and hospitals.

During this time of high activity of this infection in our community, we ask for your help to protect our patients. Please do not visit if you are feeling ill. While visiting, clean your hands before and after each visit. Use our restroom sinks or the hand sanitizers that are throughout the Medical Center.

Marlene Stetson, RN, is the infection prevention and control coordinator at Mount Nittany Medical Center.