Allegheny County Health Department
January 27, 2005

The Allegheny County Health Department is offering advice on how to prevent and control the spread of common viruses causing much of the intestinal illness or so-called “stomach flu” being reported this winter.

More than 90% of intestinal illnesses or stomach flu are caused by a group of viruses known as noroviruses, which are most frequently reported during the winter months.

The symptoms usually include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and stomach cramps. While stomach flu isn’t related to influenza, a respiratory illness, in some cases people with a norovirus infection also have influenza-like symptoms such as a fever, chills, headache and muscle aches.

The illness starts suddenly, but is usually brief, lasting only one or two days. It is generally not serious, however some people can feel very ill with frequent vomiting and diarrhea. They should drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration, especially the very young and elderly.

Noroviruses are very contagious and can spread easily and rapidly from person to person in households and other environments where people have frequent and close physical contact.

These viruses are found in the stool and vomit of infected people and can be passed to others through consumption of contaminated food or water, hand-to-mouth contact after touching contaminated surfaces or objects, and direct contact with an infected person.

Because people are contagious from the time they feel ill to at least three days after recovery, it is very important for them to use good handwashing and personal hygiene practices while they are sick and after they have recently recovered. Since there are many different strains of norovirus, recurring infections are possible.

Health officials offer the following tips to prevent and control the spread of noroviruses:

Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds after using the toilet or changing diapers and before handling, preparing or eating food.

Alcohol-based hand sanitizers and wipes do not kill certain bacteria and viruses, but soap and water can wash some of the infectious particles from the hands.

Use disposable paper towels to dry your hands instead of re-using a cloth towel.

People who are sick should not prepare, serve or handle food for others.

Wash hands after caring for a sick person and handling items they might have soiled.

Clean surfaces contaminated after an episode of illness by rinsing the surface with clear water, swabbing the area with a bleach solution containing a quarter-cup of household bleach per gallon of water, and allowing it to air dry.

Immediately remove and launder in hot water and detergent any clothing or linens that may be contaminated with virus after an episode of illness.

Launder bath and wash towels in hot water and detergent after every cleanup and use.

Wear rubber gloves when handling or cleaning up vomit or stool.

Steam cleaning is recommended for cleaning carpets soiled with vomit.

Clean and disinfect surfaces in the home on a regular basis. Spray paper or cloth towels with a cleaning agent or bleach solution and then wipe the surface, instead of spraying the surface first, which can cause virus particles to become airborne and settle on other surfaces.