It can survive on surfaces for days, is tricky to kill, and is the source of most stomach bugs in America. It’s norovirus, and we’re headed into prime season. Here’s how to beat it.
“Mommy? I threw up.”
The phrase is uttered so innocently, but it incites in me an immediate dark panic. I know right then — which way too often is in the middle of the night — that my vomiting child probably has a stomach virus, and that our family has just begun another weeklong round of ring-around-the-toilet. First it’ll be my son, then my daughter, then me, then my husband. My symptoms, for some reason, are the worst. The first time my husband saw me with a stomach bug, he said, “I really thought you were going to die.”
So which stomach bug is responsible? Salmonella? The flu? No, it’s probably norovirus, which causes the vast majority of stomach bugs in the United States. Research suggests that noroviruses can survive on surfaces for as long as 42 days, and it takes only about 20 viral particles to make a person sick. Yet one tablespoon of vomit contains a whopping 15 million viruses, and the same amount of stool contains up to 75 billion of the buggers. So “if it does spread in your house, it’s not your fault,” said Eli Perencevich, a physician and epidemiologist at the University of Iowa. (Small consolation, though, if you’re puking everywhere.)
Now that we’re again approaching winter — a.k.a., norovirus season — I’ve decided to arm myself against stomach bugs with science, and you should, too. Here’s how.
Keep your hands and the bathroom clean
When someone in your household gets sick, everyone in the family needs to wash their hands frequently with soap. Focus on scrubbing fingertips and nailbeds, where viruses linger. Hand sanitizers, sadly, aren’t effective.
If you can, quarantine the sick. Keep them home, of course, and ideally in one part of the house. If you’re fortunate enough to have a home with multiple bathrooms, designate one as the “sick” one that healthy family members don’t use.
If that’s not possible, or if everyone has to share a bathroom, “I would not call it overkill to clean surfaces every time” a sick person uses the toilet, said Mary Wikswo, viral epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
This means cleaning the toilet, the handle, the sink, the doorknob — anything that a sick person or his or her fluids might have touched. Close the toilet lid before every flush, too, and maybe even flush a second time after pouring in a half cup to a cup of bleach.
Cleaning wipes don’t work. Get the right gear.
A little-known fact about noroviruses is that many household cleaners and wipes don’t kill them. Clorox and Lysol Disinfecting wipes claim to kill 99.9 percent of viruses and bacteria, but that doesn’t include noroviruses. Your best bet is to wipe down surfaces with a bleach solution — mix between a half cup and cup of bleach with a gallon of water — or to use health-care-grade bleach wipes, such as Clorox Healthcare Bleach Germicidal Wipes, which are hard to find in stores but are sold on websites like Amazon. Let the bleach sit on the surface for at least five minutes, ideally 10, because it takes time to kill these resilient jerks. Hydrogen peroxide cleaners are another effective option.
If a family member doesn’t make it to the toilet in time, you’ll have to clean up even more carefully. Angela Fraser, a researcher at Clemson University who studies vomit and fecal cleanup strategies (seriously!), suggests that you wear disposable gloves and goggles. Dr. Perencevich said a face mask is good, too, because it keeps you from touching your mouth. In any case, “really concentrate on not touching your face while you’re doing all this,” he says.
To keep the viruses from becoming airborne as you clean, cover the fluid with paper towels, or shake kitty litter or sawdust on it, before scooping it all into a plastic bag. Then close it with a twist tie and dispose of it. Scrub the area with soap and water and then disinfect it with one of the cleaners mentioned above.
Also, don’t just clean where you saw the fluid. Dr. Fraser recommends sanitizing a 25-foot radius, including walls, table legs and any other surfaces that might have been inadvertently sprinkled with virus. (The good news is that by the time you’re done, you’ll have reached your 30 minutes of exercise for the day.)
If you have to disinfect a rug or upholstered furniture, you probably can’t use bleach because it will cause color damage. If you have a steam cleaner, use it for five minutes at 170 degrees Fahrenheit, Dr. Fraser said. Dr. Perencevich said that another option is to spray it with a hydrogen peroxide cleaner after testing that it won’t cause damage.
If clothes or washable linens get soiled, either wash them in a washing machine on the “hot” or “sanitize” setting (ideally with a half cup of bleach, if bleaching won’t damage them) or put them in a plastic bag and quarantine them for a few days or weeks, because every time you handle soiled clothes, you risk spreading the virus, Dr. Perencevich said. Consider also designating specific plates, utensils and cups for sick family members, because some dishwashers don’t eliminate all noroviruses. And don’t let anyone who’s sick prepare food for anyone else.
Stick to science, and do what you can
Speaking of things that don’t kill noroviruses: Drinking grape juice or apple cider vinegar won’t keep you healthy, despite what friends may have told you. (I know, I really wanted to believe it, too.) These “cures” supposedly work because they change the pH of the stomach, making it too acidic for noroviruses to grow. But “norovirus grows in the small intestine, so changing the stomach environment is really not going to do you much good,” Dr. Wikswo said.
If this all sounds overwhelming, I hear you. Do what you can. And there is good news: Some people are naturally more resistant to noroviruses because of genetic mutations that affect sugars found on cell surfaces. People with B or AB blood types are more resistant, too. (Of course, I’m type O.) And most of the time, noroviruses are more unpleasant than they are dangerous. Maybe “unpleasant” is too generous a word, but the other words I’m thinking of aren’t fit for print. I’ll be yelling them into my toilet the next time I get sick, though, that’s for sure.