Norovirus: What Seniors and Caregivers Should Know
This infection is more common than you might think—and seniors are at higher risk of dangerous complications.
Have you heard someone report that they were sick with a case of the "stomach flu"? This term really isn’t accurate; "the flu" refers to a respiratory illness caused by the influenza virus. Instead, the person was suffering from a gastrointestinal infection. The most likely culprit in these illnesses is a class of viruses called noroviruses.
Norovirus strikes more than 23 million people in the U.S. each year. This very contagious illness causes an inflammation of the stomach and intestines. For most people, a bout of norovirus leads to, at worst, two or three very miserable days spent close to the bathroom. But for seniors, norovirus illness can be serious, even fatal.
How do people catch norovirus?
You may have read about outbreaks of norovirus on cruise ships, or in hospitals and nursing homes. This is because the virus spreads quickly in closed places. Norovirus is a common cause of "food poisoning," when someone consumes food or liquid that has come in contact with the virus. You also can catch the virus from contact with someone who has it, or by putting your hand in your mouth after you’ve touched a contaminated surface or object. Infected people can spread the virus even before symptoms begin, and even days after they are feeling better.
What are the symptoms of norovirus?
The signs of norovirus include diarrhea, vomiting, nausea and stomach pain. The symptoms usually strike suddenly. People who have contracted the virus also may experience fever, headache and body aches. These effects usually last for one to three days.
How is norovirus treated?
Viruses cannot be treated with antibiotics. If you or a loved one develops a norovirus infection, bed rest is recommended. Drink plenty of liquids to replace fluids that are lost from vomiting and diarrhea. The doctor may recommend certain types of fluids to help replace important nutrients and minerals.
Norovirus may cause dangerous dehydration, especially in children and older adults. If you or someone you are caring for is severely dehydrated, call the doctor. Hospitalization and intravenous fluids may be required. Symptoms of dehydration include:
- Decreased urination
- Dry mouth and throat
- Dizziness when standing up
How can we prevent norovirus infections?
There is currently no vaccine for norovirus. The best way to avoid catching and spreading it is to use effective handwashing practices. Wash your hands with soap and water before eating or preparing food, and after using the toilet. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that alcohol-based sanitizers can be used in addition to handwashing, but they are not a substitute.
Safe food preparation is another important way to avoid contracting the virus. Wash fruits and vegetables, cook foods to the recommended temperature, and disinfect preparation surfaces with bleach-based cleaners.
If you are caring for a person who has norovirus, immediately remove and wash contaminated clothing and linens in hot water (above 140 degrees) with detergent at the maximum available cycle length and machine dry them. Wash your hands after handling soiled items.
Electron micrographic photo of the virus that causes norovirus illness. (Photo: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
For more information about preventing norovirus and protecting yourself while caring for a person who is ill with the virus, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website.
The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases offers information and updates about the noroviruses.
Visit the FoodSafety.gov website for more information about avoiding the spread of norovirus.
This article is not meant to replace the advice of your doctor. If you have questions about norovirus or resulting dehydration, call your healthcare provider.