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Feeling sick to your stomach? Overindulgence in holiday goodies might not be the culprit. 'Tis the season for stomach bugs. And, by the way, there's no such thing as stomach flu.
No Such Thing as Stomach Flu
First, let's get this out of the way: Although it's commonly called "stomach flu," stomach bugs are NOT the real flu (influenza). Both strike more often in winter than at other times of year, but they’re not the same.
Flus are respiratory infections with symptoms such as fevers and achiness.
A stomach bug—gastroenteritis—is caused by one or another of the many noroviruses that infect and inflame the digestive tract, often due to contaminated food or water. Once someone is infected from contaminated food, the virus can quickly pass from person to person through shared food or utensils, by shaking hands, or through other close contact.
Although we associate these highly contagious viruses with outbreaks on cruise ships, in nursing homes, or other crowded venues, norovirus can strike anyone, anywhere an infected or just-recovering person has left a few virus particles (virions) behind.
Diarrhea, stomach pain, cramps, vomiting, and nausea are the most common symptoms of gastroenteritis, the most common norovirus infection.
From 19 million to 21 million Americans are infected each year, sending 1.8 million of us to our doctors, and 400,000 folks to emergency rooms!
Because noroviruses from infected people can contaminate food, drinks, and food-preparation surfaces, they’re often classified among food-borne illnesses.
The virus spreads easily from person to person because victims shed virions in abundance, but it only takes a few to cause infection.
The virus incubates for 12 to 48 hours after contact, and though victims may feel as if they’re on their last legs, it typically runs its course after a two or three days without complications.
Victims can shed noroviruses for several days after they feel better, another reason it gets around so handily.
Dehydration is the primary concern for most people infected with norovirus. Despite frequent vomiting and diarrhea, sick people should keep sipping cool water. Infants, elders, and people with chronic illnesses may need supportive care from medical professionals.
Although viruses can’t replicate outside a host organism, norovirus virions can survive for weeks on hard surfaces, up to twelve days on contaminated fabrics (e.g., bedding, dish towels, pot holders, articles of clothing), and for months, perhaps even years, in still water.
Important note: Alcohol hand sanitizers, antibacterial soaps, and ordinary household cleaners don’t inactivate noroviruses. Viruses can’t be “killed,” because they aren't really alive, at least in our traditional understanding of living organisms. They’re just bundles of genetic material coated with proteins that invade a host and insidiously take over the host cell's genetic machinery to reproduce themselves. There’s currently no vaccine for norovirus, although research is underway in search of one.
No wonder public health experts call norovirus “the perfect pathogen.”
5 Ways to Prevent Those Nasty Stomach Bugs
If you’re sick yourself, stay home and get plenty of rest. (Employers, especially in the fast-food and other food related industries, take note. Offer sick leave.) Sick people may continue to be contagious for up to 72 hours after they feel well again.
If someone in your household is sick with a stomach bug, isolate them and the items they’ve used or touched.
Wearing disposable gloves, remove, then wash bedding and towels immediately if vomit or feces from a sick person has soiled or splashed on them. Wash soiled bed linens and clothes separately from other laundry.
Use disposable gloves when handling anything a sick person (including yourself) may have touched: eating/drinking utensils, water bottles, toilet handles, doorknobs, light switches, telephone receivers, remote-control devices. Wipe down common surfaces often.
Wash your hands often and long with regular soap and plain water, and teach others in your household how to do it properly. For viruses, it’s not the cleaning product, but the friction of rubbing the hands and fingers together, then rinsing well that gets the virus particles off your hands.
You mostly have to wait out the symptoms for 1 to 3 days. But it helps to . . .
Drink plenty of liquids to prevent dehydration, which is a serious issue with severe diarrhea and vomiting. Water or half-strength juices are best. Avoid soda or sports drinks. Call the doctor if you become so dehydrated that you can't pee.
Take over-the-counter, non-aspirin pain relievers for fever and body aches.
Call the doctor if you have a fever, vomit for than 48 hours, find blood in your vomit or poop, or have a swollen pain in the right lower part of the belly.
May all your winter days be bright, happy, and healthy!
Margaret Boyles is a longtime contributor to The Old Farmer’s Almanac. She wrote for UNH Cooperative Extension, managed NH Outside, and contributes to various media covering environmental and human health issues. Read More from Margaret Boyles