Knowing about one in 15 Americans gets norovirus every year, I’ve had the “When the NoroCORE blogger got norovirus” post waiting in the wings for a while (72 posts’ worth of time to be exact). I think the virus had a good sense of ironic timing, since I had been in the middle of writing a post for NCSU’s research blog, The Abstract, for World Health Day, which focuses on food safety this year. Expect a much cleaner, more informative post on their website soon.
Last weekend was the Gastropocalypse in our home. My husband was first, with a sudden onset of some truly spectacular vomiting and diarrhea in the dead of night. Being the dutiful, loving spouse that I am, I left bleach, nitrile gloves, medications, and paper towels outside the bathroom door and set up basecamp in the guest room. After a night of catching bits of sleep between giving his prayers and offerings to the porcelain god, my husband was little more than a moaning, shivering zombie on the couch the next day, that could only muster sips of Gatorade and a couple of crackers.
Knowing my time might be nigh, since norovirus gets around (fun fact, it can be aerosolized over several feet when a person vomits) and has a 12-48 hour incubation period, I dashed to the grocery store at first light for enough bland foods, cleaning supplies, and tummy meds to last us a week. (In a perfect world, I would have had everything on-hand ahead of time, and not risk spreading my cooties around, since you can shed the virus before showing symptoms, but we were laughably low on toilet paper.) Sure enough, by that night I was feeling pretty puny, with demonic tummy rumblings, deceptive flatulence, and waves of chills, aches, and nausea. Suffice it to say I didn’t write this post in one sitting.
Truth be told, we won’t know that it was actually norovirus, and what my husband and I have endured, though good for gross-out factor storytelling, is pretty mild for norovirus, and bacteria or other baddies could have been the actual culprit. That is one of the big issues for studying gastroenteritis, and it is thought that 90% of people with norovirus do not seek medical attention and manage their symptoms at home, so those cases don’t get diagnosed, reported, and tallied by groups like state health departments or the CDC. But that doesn’t mean the illness isn’t a big deal, and we think that noroviruses are the leading cause of acute non-bacterial gastroenteritis and also the most common cause of foodborne illness in the U.S.
Looking at the big picture, it’s estimated that 20 million Americans get norovirus each year, at a cost of $2 billion, from medical expenses and the time people lose from not being able to work. Though the vast majority of people get better after a couple of memorable days, it is believed as many as 800 people in the U.S., usually the young, elderly, or immunocompromised, pass away from the disease each year. When infected, people shed the virus in the millions to billions in their stool and vomit, and the virus can persist on surfaces, foods, and in water for weeks or more. There are several things people can do to prevent getting and spreading norovirus, which the CDC does a great job of explaining here.