December 22, 2014
Norovirus hitting hard this season in Minnesota, with numerous outbreaks reported
Health officials stress importance of careful hand washing, food preparation to prevent ‘stomach flu’
As if colds, influenza and other respiratory infections weren’t enough to make Minnesotans ill in winter, this is also the time of year when digestive tract illness caused by a family of germs known as noroviruses tend to increase. This year, norovirus seems to be hitting the state especially hard.
Approximately 40 outbreaks of norovirus illness have been reported to the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) since the beginning of November. The outbreaks have occurred in a variety of settings, including restaurants, schools, nursing homes, and private gatherings.
Noroviruses are the most common cause of food-related illness in Minnesota, and reported cases peak during the winter months. Symptoms of a norovirus infection can include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, headache, body aches, a general run-down feeling, and a mild fever. People typically become ill 24 to 48 hours after exposure to the virus, and symptoms usually last anywhere from one to three days.
Although people commonly refer to norovirus illness as “stomach flu,” the illness is not the same as influenza. Influenza is primarily a respiratory illness, characterized by symptoms like high fever, body aches, sneezing, a runny nose or a sore throat.
When people think of “stomach flu,” they often don’t appreciate that they could have gotten their illness from food or that they could pass the virus to others through food. Prevention of norovirus infections is simple in principle, officials say. Just practice good personal hygiene and observe appropriate food-handling procedures.
“People need to remember to wash their hands, thoroughly” said Dr. Kirk Smith, who heads the Foodborne Diseases Unit at MDH. “Wash your hands after using the toilet, before consuming food, and before preparing food for yourself or others. If everybody did that, we could prevent a majority of the illness caused by these viruses.”
Noroviruses are present in the stool and vomit of infected people, Dr. Smith said. They are spread primarily through person-to-person contact, or contamination of food prepared by a person with the illness.
Precautions that can help prevent the spread of noroviruses include:
- Washing your hands after using the toilet.
- Washing your hands before handling food or ice.
- Washing your hands before eating.
- Excusing yourself from food preparation duties if you have possible norovirus symptoms, and for at least a few days after you recover.
- Discarding foods that were handled or prepared by someone with possible norovirus symptoms – unless they will be thoroughly cooked before serving.
- Promptly cleaning and disinfecting any surfaces that become soiled with vomit or diarrhea.
- An additional measure for those who have more than one bathroom in their home is to have all ill individuals use the same bathroom; those who are well use the others.
“People should also remember that they can continue to spread the virus for up to several days after they get over a norovirus infection,” Dr. Smith emphasized, “so they should refrain from preparing food – commercially or for their own families – for an additional 72 hours after they get well.”
The public can report suspected outbreaks of norovirus illness – or other food-related illnesses – to the MDH Foodborne Illness Hotline at 1-877-FOOD ILL (366-3455). For more information about norovirus, people can call MDH at (651) 201-5414 or 1-877-676-5414 during normal business hours, 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday.