It stays alive longer than the flu and once you’re infected, it’ll bring you to your knees (preferably in front of a toilet bowl).
It’s no wonder a little pathogen like norovirus is wreaking havoc in parts of Canada and the United States.
Right now, Toronto Public Health is investigating a possible norovirus outbreak after more than 200 Humber College students ended up with the stomach flu. On the west coast of the country, the B.C. Centre for Disease Control said more than 70 people got sick with norovirus after eating oysters that may have been raw or cooked improperly.
Meanwhile, U.S. health officials are dealing with handfuls of norovirus outbreaks across the country.
Norovirus is a mean bug with a handful of mischievous tricks. Once it pops up, it’s often too late to stop the spread.
And its MO? It’s to make you sick — like “you literally turn into an explosion” sick, according to Jason Tetro, a microbiologist and infectious disease expert.
The Canadian author of The Germ Code walked Global News through the ins and outs of norovirus.
It lives longer than the flu, E.coli and other bacteria
Norovirus is a small bug — literally, 27 nanometres or a 27 billionths of a metre. It’s a member of the picornaviruses, which don’t have an envelope.
“They’re just essentially protein and RNA,” Tetro explains.
So what does that mean for us? Most viruses have lipid envelopes, which can work against them. They’re vulnerable to the elements and can die if they don’t infect and attach to something — or someone — soon. The seasonal flu dies in a couple of hours, HIV can die right away and bacterias can take a couple of weeks.
Norovirus, on the other hand, can live for months. Yes, that means it could be on a handrail, in a library book, or waiting for you on a doorknob, Tetro says.
You can catch it in different ways
Noroviruses are typically found in the stool or vomit of people sick with the bug. You can become infected by:
- Direct contact with someone else who is already sick with norovirus. It could be as innocuous as sharing a straw with your loved one, or looking after your baby who has the bug.
- Touching surfaces or objects contaminated with norovirus, such as door handles.
- Eating food or water that’s been contaminated
Keep in mind, the only cure for norovirus is bedrest because antibiotics don’t do a thing. You have to wait it out.
It’s a bit of a drama queen
Most infections take between two to 10 days to develop. Norovirus wants you to know it’s got you right away. There is no days-long incubation period — we’re talking about six hours until symptoms appear.
If you were at school and you caught the bug just after breakfast, Tetro is sure you’ll have lost your will to live by dinner.
“As soon as norovirus is inside your body it can multiply so that you go from the one to 10 that went in your mouth to 10 billion per gram of fecal matter in as little as 12 hours,” Tetro explained to Global News.
In layman’s terms, this means a whole lot of pain: severe diarrhea, uncontrollable vomiting (sometimes at the same time), dehydration and weakness, all at varying degrees depending on its victim.
“You literally turn into an explosion,” Tetro said.
The toilet bowl dependency can last for about 24 to 72 hours. There are only so many cells the virus likes, and once it’s infected those, it leaves your system.
Norovirus is a smart cookie: because it comes and goes so fast, it doesn’t give your immune system enough time to process what has happened. The result? We don’t grow immunity to it.
It only takes a little bit to get you sick, and it likes to linger
If you’re sick with salmonella poisoning, you probably took in about 100,000 bacteria. With norovirus, research suggests you only need between one and 10 to get infected. That’s not a lot of virus at all.
(In one 1999 case, a man vomited in a concert hall. That was enough to infect another 300 people with the airborne virus. Remember that soccer team that was plagued with diarrhea and incessant puking? The culprit was a reusable grocery bag filled with cookies, and they all reached in for a snack.)
Once you’ve kicked the awful symptoms, you aren’t home free yet either. With the flu, you typically stop shedding the virus, but with norovirus you could be giving up the virus to others for as long as 21 days.
Tetro says that’s why hospitals and long-term care residences quickly shut down wards once norovirus pops up. They’re trying to isolate the virus.
How to protect yourself
Good hygiene, safe food handling and preparation are what’s key to lowering your risk of getting norovirus.
Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water for about 30 seconds, or as long as it takes to sing Happy Birthday or Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.
Most of us use antibacterial hand sanitizer religiously, but only for about three to eight seconds. That’s not enough to get rid of this virus.
You need to really wet your hands with this stuff, and scrub for at least 30 seconds to have a fair chance at killing norovirus.
When it comes to food, keep raw ingredients away from other foods while shopping, storing and preparing meals. Avoid raw shellfish when possible, including oysters.
After working with raw food, especially meat and fish, clean and sanitize your kitchen workspace.