Take precaution to avoid norovirus — that nasty stomach- and bowel-emptying bug that takes down around 20 million Americans each year. Really. Our advice couldn't be simpler, but it couldn't be more important. It's the butt of many a cruise ship joke, and was recently spotted at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. But someday soon, it could just be the stuff of urban legend: norovirus is inching closer to an antidote, thanks to new research from Washington University in St. Louis. Scientists there have discovered a protein that norovirus uses to bond to cells in mice, aiding in their infection. “It is an important finding regarding how noroviruses enter mouse cells,” says Amesh Adalja, M.D., clinical assistant professor in the department of critical care medicine and adjunct instructor in the division of infectious diseases at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and School of Medicine. Although humans do not make this same protein, “the research may open up new ways to understand noroviruses more broadly, which may lead to treatments and vaccines.”
Characterized by inflammation of the stomach and intestines that leads to vomiting and diarrhea, norovirus has been a tough bug for docs to crack. Time from infection to first symptoms can be more than a day and a half, meaning by the time you realize you’re sick, you have no idea how you got it. Likely sources include physical contact with an infected person, and improperly washed or undercooked food. “Norovirus is very contagious and can be spread by exposure to those experiencing symptoms of the virus,” says Dr. Adalja. “Vomit from a norovirus patient, for example, is very contagious and can be somewhat projectile. Also, surfaces contaminated by the virus can be contagious for days afterward.”
Even the air you breathe could be the culprit: In a study published in the scientific journal PLoS ONE, researchers at North Carolina State University discovered that after an infected person vomits, particles of air within several feet proximity may be contaminated with the virus. (To test this theory, study co-author and professor of environmental engineering Francis L. de los Reyes, Ph.D., developed the excellently named Vomit Machine—a lifelike simulation of projectile vomiting that allows scientists to measure the content of nearby air.) The upshot: Family and friends of people with norovirus should rethink how close they get. “Vomit and stool are the two main pathways of transmission for norovirus,” says de los Reyes. “Vomit splatter itself can be detected as far away as 19-feet from a sick person” and feasibly, contact with it could lead to infection.
The distance the virus can travel, coupled with confined quarters, is one reason that in close environments such as a cruise ship it spreads rapidly. So how do you protect yourself? “Vaccines against norovirus are in human trials, but we are still several years away from a norovirus vaccine,” says Dr. Adalja. “Some important findings have also been made in the laboratory using antiviral compounds to treat infections, but these are several years away as well.” In the meantime, follow these precautions:
- Regularly wash your hands with soap and warm water, especially before preparing or handling food, and after going to the bathroom, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
- Wash fruits and vegetables before eating.
- Cook food thoroughly. Norovirus can survive temperatures as high as 140°, so quick steaming processes may not kill the virus.
- Disinfect any surfaces that may be contaminated with a chlorine bleach solution. “Norovirus stays on surfaces for up to two weeks,” says de los Reyes. “If someone gets sick, the virus becomes airborne and eventually lands on a table top. A week later, if you touch the table and then touch your mouth, you can get the virus.” Use about ¾ cup of household bleach per gallon of water to wipe down the surfaces.
- Wash your laundry with detergent at the maximum available cycle length, then machine dry them.
If you do catch norovirus, don’t panic. The cycle is relatively short-lived, taking an average of 44 hours to run its course. (According to a new study from the University of Georgia College of Public Health, this is true regardless of your age, gender, or state of health). Prepare for two days of downtime, followed by a week or two of recovery. (Antibiotics won’t help because it is a viral, not bacterial, infection.) Even once you feel better, continue to obsess over hygiene: The norovirus has been found in a person’s system several weeks after symptoms disappeared.