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News / Health / Clark County Health

That ‘stomach flu’ could be norovirus, say Clark County health officials

Highly contagious virus causes nausea, vomiting, diarrhea

By Monika Spykerman, Columbian staff writer
Published: March 13, 2024, 6:00am

If you’ve recently been laid low with nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fever and aches (or even two or three of those things), you might have had norovirus. Commonly called “stomach flu,” it’s unrelated to the virus that causes the flu.

It is, however, extremely contagious — and it appears to be on the rise in the Western United States, according to recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Across the U.S., there are normally 19 million to 21 million cases a year. Each year 900 people (mostly adults age 65 and older), die from norovirus, and 109,000 are hospitalized, according to the CDC.

In Clark County, norovirus cases are not reported to Clark County Public Health (and neither is flu), so there’s no way to determine the county’s actual number of cases, said Marissa Armstrong, the agency’s spokesperson.

Public Health is investigating gastrointestinal illness outbreaks in three schools or child care centers, Armstrong said. An incident is considered an “outbreak” when 10 percent or more of the total staff or student population is absent due to diarrhea or vomiting, Armstrong said, or two or more students or staff from the same classroom are absent with gastrointestinal symptoms within a 24-hour period.

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Young children, whose hands are constantly traveling from sticky surfaces to their mouths, are particularly susceptible. Of the country’s approximately 465,000 norovirus-related hospital visits in a year, most are children.

Still, there’s reason to be hopeful.

“We’re at the tail end of the season,” said Alan Goodman, associate professor of molecular biosciences at Washington State University in Pullman, who specializes in microbiology and immunology. “Researchers don’t really know why the season is in the winter and spring months, but they hypothesize it’s because of increased humidity during that time.”

Outbreaks are possible at other times, especially in places with a lot of close, person-to-person contact, such as preschools, nursing homes or cruise ships, according to a recent article by the Associated Press. (So maybe postpone that cruise you’re thinking of taking).

The virus is highly contagious and spread in a disconcerting number of ways besides direct contact with a sick person. It is also spread through particles in food and by touching any object contaminated with the virus, such as a door handle, countertop or cutlery. And the kicker: Some people can become contagious before developing symptoms, according to the CDC. Even when people feel better, they can still be contagious for up to two weeks, although peak contagiousness seems to wane two or three days after symptoms disappear.

Frequent hand-washing is the frontline prevention, Goodman said — both to wash away any particles you may have touched before they get into your mouth or nose and, if you have been infected, to wash away any vomit or feces particles (disgusting but true) before you touch something somebody else will touch.

The virus is particularly fond of spit, Goodman said, so any surface that may harbor spit particles should be washed.

“The important thing is washing with soap because the detergent in soaps will penetrate the membrane of the virus, and it won’t be able to live on surfaces,” Goodman said. “When you wash your hands, warm water is better. Higher temperatures will also kill this virus.”

Even microscopic flecks of feces on sheets used by a contagious person can persist after a cold-water wash cycle, so just to be safe, wash those sheets in hot water. And if you’re feeling queasy, cancel that dinner party.

“Norovirus is called a foodborne illness and can live on the surfaces of food, especially food that is high in water content,” Goodman said. “It likes to survive in water. It needs cells to replicate itself, but it can live on wet surfaces like skin, mucus, vomit or fecal matter.”

If you have it, you’ll likely know it. Goodman said symptoms include “major stomach pain, vomiting and diarrhea.” Goodman said it can feel like the flu but it doesn’t last as long, maybe two or three days. It’s “shorter in duration but quite painful,” Goodman said.

The bad news is there is no treatment for norovirus other than rest and hydration. Consult with a doctor or advice nurse if you think you need emergency care.

As for Goodman, who became interested in immunology after taking a virology class, he said he’s not worried about norovirus. It’s just one of the countless viruses that exist in the world and continue to plague (literally) us humans.

“They’re out there,” Goodman said.