How to say “no” to norovirus in your home

Just when you’re busy preparing for the holiday season – working, shopping, cooking, planning, maybe even finding time to give back to the community – life has a way of throwing you a curveball. When it rains, it pours – or at this time of year, when it snows, it becomes a blizzard.

The blizzard hit my already sleep-deprived family this week. Running from commitment to commitment (work conferences, sports, Christmas shopping) we were barely keeping it together. Then last night around midnight my partner told me his stomach was feeling uncomfortable. I kicked him out of bed and within the hour he was in the bathroom vomiting.

Unfortunately, my family isn’t alone this time of year. Colleagues are off sick. Meetings are getting cancelled because sickness is sweeping through other organizations as well.

Some viruses that cause those unmentionable gastrointestinal symptoms are very contagious. One of the worst and most well-known causes of vomiting and diarrhea is called “norovirus” (though you may know it as Norwalk virus). Norovirus spreads easily and is hard to kill.

One common misconception is that “stomach flu” (what many people tend to call norovirus) is similar to influenza (the flu). If what you have is truly the flu, you’ll be spared the sudden onset of stomach cramps, headache, vomiting and diarrhea and suffer instead from coughing, sneezing and a fever. Unlike the flu, there’s no vaccine for norovirus.

If your child is sick and you change his diaper and then touch your face without washing your hands first, or if your roommate doesn’t wash her hands quite thoroughly enough before unlocking the bathroom door, you could pick it up.

That’s right, you catch norovirus by accidentally ingesting teeny tiny particles of a sick person’s vomit or stool.

I “digested” that above tidbit of information before tracking down a couple of our infectious disease experts here at Public Health to give me their best advice about preventing norovirus. Am I doomed because the virus is already in my house? Is there anything else I can do besides banishing my partner to the basement for the 24-48 hours it takes for him to not be contagious?

Luckily, I’m told it’s not inevitable that I catch what hubby has. Our public health inspectors gave me this multi-pronged plan to both defend myself and attack norovirus at the same time:

  1. First things first, they told me to upgrade my cleaning arsenal. The products I have under my counter won’t touch norovirus – it’s tough. The best defense is a bleach and water solution – mix 1 part bleach with 10 parts water and allow to sit on surfaces for 10 minutes.

  2. Identify “high-touch surfaces” and places sick people might have touched. In my house, these are bathroom counters, doorknobs, taps and toilets. Clean and disinfect these surfaces using a disinfectant (such as bleach and water). For bleach and water, allow the solution to sit on the surface for 10 minutes. For other products, follow the label instructions for “contact time”. For example, if the label says to follow a 10-minute contact time, this means that the surface has to stay wet with the product for 10 minutes in order for it to kill any germs on the surface.

  3. Launder clothing and bedding as usual (but in a separate load). You can also consider running an empty rinse cycle afterwards.

  4. Use gloves when cleaning up vomit or stool and throw the gloves away afterwards. If possible, wear a surgical mask to avoid breathing in particles (ewww).

  5. When cleaning, move from the cleanest to dirtiest area.

  6. Wash hands thoroughly using soap and water after using the bathroom and changing diapers (this advice also holds true for helping someone else to go to the bathroom and before preparing or eating food). “Handwashing” sounds simple, but there are key ways to make it more effective: use warm running water and soap (no need for antibacterial or special soaps) and scrub-a-dub-dub because it’s the friction that helps lift off bacteria. Sing Happy Birthday twice and that’s about how long it should take to wash your hands. Make sure to get the space underneath jewellery and include your wrists and the backs of your hands.

  7. For small items like TV remote controls, toys or keyboards there are three options:

    • Run through the laundry or dishwasher, if safe to do so.
    • Check with the manufacturer to see what disinfectant is recommended.
    • Put the item away (e.g., in a garage or somewhere you won’t touch it) for two weeks. This will make sure no live virus survives.

Lest the burden of preventing norovirus fall to me, our disease prevention experts also have tips for my sick partner. If you’ve had norovirus I think you’d agree with me that you wouldn’t wish it on your worst enemy! So here are some key ways to prevent it from spreading to others.

  1. Don’t prepare food for other people until you’re better. Even when you’re trying your best to wash your hands well, it only takes a tiny amount of infected stool to make someone else sick.
  2. Avoid public pools, hot tubs and spas until two weeks after symptoms have stopped.
  3. Use your own towel to dry your hands after washing, or use disposable paper towel.
  4. Wash hands thoroughly by following the instructions in #6 above.
  5. Not that you feel like going, but it bears saying – stay home from work for at least 48 hours after vomiting and diarrhea have stopped.
    And one final tip: if you think you have norovirus but your symptoms last longer than a few days or get worse, see your doctor as soon as possible. Same goes if you notice any blood in your stool (poop) as this may be a sign of another bug that may require treatment.

I hope you can learn from my family and stay well this winter. Do you have any other tips to fend off viruses? Please share below!