Putting the “no” in Norovirus

Illustration by Alissa Eckert, courtesy the CDC

Quick, imagine your ideal date. Is it followed by nausea and vomiting? What about cramps, a fever or diarrhea? We’re going to guess, “no.”

Unfortunately, sometimes dinner leads to foodborne illness, particularly from the prolific norovirus, which causes around 50% of all food poisoning cases.

The virus is highly contagious. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, norovirus causes between 19 and 21 million illnesses in the U.S. annually. Not only can it be spread through contaminated surfaces, foods and bodily fluids, but evidence shows it can also be transferred through the air. Yikes.

Although anyone can get sick from norovirus, it’s of particular concern for the elderly, very young and otherwise immunocompromised people. Symptoms are unpleasant: vomiting, nausea, diarrhea, fever and stomach pain. For most healthy people, norovirus passes after a few days with lots of rest and water.

Food service settings, like restaurants and buffets, account for most outbreaks, as people touch ready-to-eat foods with bare hands.

So, what can the average human do to prevent norovirus from ruining his or her next vacation, camping trip, relaxing weekend and other fun plans? Here’s what the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Inspection Service suggests:

  • Wash your hands. Take your time — at least 20 seconds. Count to 20, or sing a song like “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” if it helps — but make sure you clean for long enough.
  • Wash your fruits and veggies, too, before eating them.
  • Cook seafood — and all food, really — thoroughly before eating. Here are some tips on the right cooking temperatures for meat, for you grilling fans.
  • Any risk of contamination in your food? Just throw it out. It’s not worth the risk.
  • Use a chlorine bleach solution (one tablespoon of bleach per gallon of water) to disinfect potentially contaminated surfaces.
  • Were you recently sick? Don’t prepare food or care for others for at least three days after your symptoms stop. While sick, try to stay home to avoid infecting others.

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