Monday Medical: Colorado hard hit by norovirus

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Ask-a-Nurse: Call 970-871-7878 for Yampa Valley Medical Center’s free service.

An especially strong strain of norovirus has been causing short-term but intense illness across Colorado and the nation this winter. The new Sydney strain, which first was identified in Australia last year, is the culprit.

Norovirus infection affects the stomach and intestines and causes an illness called gastroenteritis: inflammation of the stomach and intestines. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and painful stomach cramping. Individuals also might experience low-grade fever, chills, headache, muscle aches or general sense of fatigue.

Yampa Valley Medical Center nurse and Infection Preventionist Steve Hilley describes his recent experience with norovirus as “like getting hit by a train.”

Hilley, who advocates frequent hand washing and practices what he preaches, also is an affectionate family man. He thinks he might have caught the virus from his 9-year-old daughter, Lauren, who became so ill on Christmas Eve that she barely could muster interest in the family Christmas celebration.

About a week later, Hilley began feeling bad at work. By the time he got home a couple of hours later, “The pain was terrible, and it knocked me down flat,” he said.

For two days, Hilley stayed in bed and ate Popsicles, the only food he could tolerate. The smell of frying bacon, which he normally considers aromatherapy, was torture to him.

“You know you’re really sick when bacon smells bad,” Hilley said.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment began reporting widespread norovirus throughout Colorado in December, including in nursing homes, assisted living centers, schools and child care centers.

Stomach illness is easily spread to others by direct contact with an ill person. It also can be picked up after touching contaminated surfaces or objects and then touching one’s eyes, nose or mouth. Another source of transmission is eating food that has been contaminated by an ill person.

Norovirus spreads easily, causing more than 20 million gastroenteritis cases each year in the U.S. and an estimated 70,000 hospitalizations and 800 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

There’s no vaccine to prevent norovirus infection and no medication to treat it, Hilley said. Antibiotics will not help because they fight against bacteria, not viruses. Norovirus illness is not related to influenza, which is a respiratory illness caused by influenza virus. Therefore, the flu vaccine does not protect against norovirus.

Also, you can get norovirus illness more than once because the virus mutates every two to three years, Hilley said.

Hilley lists several tips to lower the risk of contracting norovirus:

■ Wash your hands thoroughly and often, especially after using the bathroom or changing diapers and before preparing food.

■ Any adult or child with stomach illness should stay home from work or school until 48 hours after symptoms have stopped.

■ Do not share food or drinks.

■ Thoroughly clean up and disinfect all surfaces after a person has been sick. Immediately remove and wash any soiled clothing or linens.

■ Ill individuals should delay visiting hospitals, nursing homes or assisted living centers and avoid preparing food for others until two days after illness has passed.

Most people infected by norovirus get better in 24 to 48 hours, but the illness can be serious in young children, the elderly and people with other health conditions.

Dehydration is a common complication. Symptoms include a decrease in urination, a dry mouth and throat, and feeling dizzy when standing up.

“Staying hydrated is absolutely critical,” Hilley said. “Take very small sips of water or suck on ice chips to start with. You can have broth, Popsicles, ice cream or any food that provides liquids and tastes good to you.

“If you think you or someone you are caring for is severely dehydrated, consider seeking medical attention,” Hilley said. “If you’re not sure, dial 970-871-7878 for YVMC’s free Ask-a-Nurse service.”

Christine McKelvie is a writer/editor for Yampa Valley Medical Center.

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