Cold weather means more indoor time for many Montanans. Close contact indoors often helps spread illnesses, such as norovirus, anywhere people gather together. Holiday gatherings, schools and settings such as long-term care and assisted living facilities are especially vulnerable to outbreaks.
“Norovirus can spread very quickly and can make some people very ill,” Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS) Director Richard Opper said. “To protect yourself and others it is important to wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water often.”
The usual symptoms of gastroenteritis include diarrhea, vomiting, nausea, and stomach pain. There is no specific treatment for this illness and most individuals recover in 1 to 3 days. The illness can last longer and be more severe in young children, older people, or people who have other chronic health conditions.
The virus is highly contagious and can spread rapidly.
DPHHS is reminding individuals to stay home when ill and not risk exposing other people. “It’s a simple and effective method to keep infectious diseases from spreading: Stay home when you are ill,” says epidemiologist Dana Fejes. Norovirus is the most common cause of gastroenteritis in the Montana and the US. In the last three years in Montana, nearly 3,000 people have been sickened during norovirus outbreaks. This is 12 times as many people that became ill as a result of other gastroenteritis outbreaks.
A person can become ill by ingesting the virus from contaminated food or water or by close contact with someone who is ill. Touching surfaces or objects that are contaminated with norovirus, and then transferring the virus hand to mouth is another common way of becoming infected.
Public health officials advise following simple tips to prevent the spread of norovirus and many other infectious illnesses:
- Practice proper hand hygiene: Wash your hands carefully with soap and water, especially after using the bathroom or changing diapers and always before eating or preparing food. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers can be used in addition to hand washing. But, they should not be used as a substitute for washing with soap and water.
- Take care in the kitchen: Carefully wash fruits and vegetables, and cook oysters and other shellfish thoroughly before eating them.
- Do not prepare food while ill: People who are infected with norovirus should not prepare food for others while they have symptoms and for 3 days after they recover from their illness.
- Clean and disinfect contaminated surfaces: After an episode of illness, such as vomiting or diarrhea, immediately clean and disinfect contaminated surfaces by using a bleach-based household cleaner as directed on the product label or a solution made by adding 5–25 tablespoons of household bleach to 1 gallon of water.
- Wash laundry thoroughly: Immediately remove clothing or linens that may be contaminated and wash with detergent at the maximum length available cycle, then machine dry. Handle soiled items carefully—without agitating them—to avoid spreading virus.