Health & Fitness

Here’s what you need to know about noroviruses — but first, wash your hands

It takes contact with just a few norovirus particles to get sick.
It takes contact with just a few norovirus particles to get sick. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

More than 600 people were hit last month with gastroenteritis symptoms after attending the New Theatre Restaurant in Overland Park.

Public health investigators discovered norovirus.

Ten or more people, including Shawnee Mission students, were hit with the same vomiting and diarrhea last week after visiting a Buffalo Wild Wings in Overland Park.

Again, it’s norovirus that health investigators find.

And 18 patients and staff members at the Marillac Campus of the University of Kansas Hospital developed the same symptoms this week.

Norovirus is among the suspects.

Are these incidents linked?

“I would say it’s improbable,” said Sara Belfry of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, which is investigating. “But we can’t rule that out at this time. Theoretically, it’s possible because it’s very contagious.”

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Yes, extremely contagious and also very common, noroviruses are the cause of countless cases of what we commonly call “stomach flu” or “food poisoning.” The average person can expect to get a norovirus — yes, there’s more than one kind — about five times during his or her lifetime.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that noroviruses are responsible for about 19 million to 21 million illnesses each year in the U.S. It’s the No. 1 cause of gastroenteritis, a catch-all term for stomach and intestinal infections that cause diarrhea, vomiting and nausea. It’s also the most common cause of food-borne disease outbreaks.

And right now is the time of year when norovirus cases peak.

Noroviruses have famously been linked to cruise ships. And there have been some well-publicized outbreaks on board. But research has shown that the ships account for a miniscule percentage of the total cases.

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Most people encounter the viruses in nursing homes and other health care facilities, where about 63 percent of outbreaks occur. Restaurants and banquet facilities are the setting for about 22 percent of outbreaks; schools and day care facilities account for about 6 percent.

For most people, norovirus infections cause one to three days of misery with no lasting effects. But for young children and the elderly, the illnesses can cause severe dehydration. The infections contribute to as many as 71,000 hospitalizations and 800 deaths each year, the CDC estimates.

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Here’s what the CDC says you need to know about norovirus illnesses to stay healthy or get better:

Q: How are noroviruses spread?

A: Noroviruses are so contagious it takes just 18 viral particles on your food or hands to make you sick. Putting your contaminated hand or food in your mouth is all it takes.

There’s no nice way to explain the source of norovirus or the way it’s spread. The viruses are found in the vomit and stool of people who’ve been infected. The virus can be in the stool before someone starts to feel ill and continue to be there for two weeks or longer after they feel better.

Infected people who don’t wash their hands thoroughly can spread the virus — and it only takes a little — by touching surfaces other people will touch, by shaking hands or by preparing food.

Most outbreaks happen at places where food is served, and infected food workers are often the source. But norovirus can spread quickly in any place where people are in close contact, such as day care centers, schools, nursing homes and, yes, cruise ships.

Q: What are the symptoms of norovirus?

A: Most commonly, they’re diarrhea, vomiting, nausea and stomach pain. But they also can include fever, headache and body aches.

Symptoms generally start 12 to 48 hours after you’ve been exposed to a norovirus and may last one to three days. You may throw up or have diarrhea many times in a day, which can make you vulnerable to dehydration. Signs of dehydration include decreased urination, dry mouth and throat and feeling dizzy when standing up.

Q: I think I have it — how do I treat it?

A: Unfortunately, there’s no specific medication for norovirus illness. Antibiotics treat only bacterial infections, so they won’t help.

Dehydration from fluids lost from vomiting and diarrhea is your main concern. The best advice is to drink plenty of liquids that don’t contain caffeine or alcohol. Sports drinks such as Gatorade may be helpful for mild dehydration. Better yet are oral rehydration fluids like Pedialyte that can replace needed minerals and nutrients. Severe dehydration may require a hospital stay for intravenous fluids.

Q: How can I prevent norovirus infections?

A: Although norovirus vaccines are under development, none have been approved for use in the United States.

The most important thing to do is to wash your hands thoroughly and frequently. Hand washing is particularly important after using the toilet or changing diapers. And you should also wash you hands before eating, handling or preparing food.

When preparing food, wash fruits and vegetables and cook shellfish thoroughly. Keep sick infants and children out of areas where food is being prepared. And if you’re sick, don’t prepare food for other people until at least two weeks after you feel better.

After vomiting or having diarrhea, clean the affected area with a chlorine bleach solution or other disinfectant. Wear rubber or disposable gloves when handling contaminated clothing and linens, and wash your hands afterward. Contaminated items should be machine washed for the maximum cycle and then machine dried.

Norovirus outbreaks in Kansas


New Theatre Restaurant in Overland Park: more than 600 report illness

Buffalo Wild Wings, 7030 W. 105th St. in Overland Park: 10 to 15 cases

University of Kansas Hospital’s Marillac Campus in Overland Park: 18 reported sick; norovirus suspected


Tallgrass Creek long-term care facility, 13800 Metcalf Ave., Overland Park: 61 cases

Meals on Wheels, Neosho, Allen and Woodson counties: 61 cases

Prairie Ridge Elementary in Shawnee (after field trip to Blue Springs): 35 cases

Atria Hearthstone long-term care facility, Topeka: 92 cases

La Tropicana restaurant in Lawrence: 14 cases


Fast-food restaurant in Shawnee County: 6 cases

Tabor College in Marion County: 64 cases

Stanton County Hospital long-term care unit, Johnson City: 12 cases

Long-term care facility, Sedgwick County: 59 cases

Long-term care facility in Shawnee County: 35 cases


Dinner banquet, Pawnee County: 28 cases

Martinelli's Little Italy Restaurant, Salina: 28 cases

School potluck barbecue, McPherson County: 34 cases

Jimmy John’s restaurant, Garden City: 216 cases

Source: Kansas Department of Health and Environment

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