3 Ways to Beat a Norovirus Outbreak

To vanquish stomach flu, enforce hand-washing, clean surfaces aggressively, and keep sick kids at home.

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Norovirus, often called the stomach flu, is back, closing down a college in Michigan and sickening kids and parents nationwide. It sure was topic No. 1 at my daughter's school bus stop this morning.

One mom recounted her family's harrowing weekend spent dealing with projectile vomiting, diarrhea, and headaches. Another gave a worried look at her third grader, who had woken up with a tummy ache. She decided to take him back home rather than letting him board the bus.

Wise move, mom.

It turns out that the best way to beat the stomach flu, which circulates the most in fall and winter, is to practice classic infection control techniques—quarantine and hygiene. With families, that means three things:

1. Keep kids home if they're sick or you think they might be getting sick. The norovirus that causes many stomach flu outbreaks is exceedingly contagious. Keeping a sick kid at home reduces the number of bugs circulating on the bus and at school. Our grade school principal is so concerned about this week's outbreak that she robocalled all parents, asking them to keep sick kids home. (Here's the quick-and-dirty on norovirus avoidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.) Michigan health officials closed down Hope College this week in an effort to squelch the norovirus outbreak there. (Earlier this year, Kent State got nailed by a similar outbreak.)

2. Become the hand-washing militia. Norovirus and other stomach bugs are spread when someone touches a contaminated surface then puts hand to mouth. Kids do this all the time, needless to say, and schools and daycare centers are germ parties. Parents and other caregivers are particularly vulnerable because they're the ones dealing with poopy diapers and vomit cleanup. The CDC recommends frequent, 20-second handwashes as the best defense. That's the equivalent of singing "Happy Birthday" twice. If you can't wash your hands, use an alcohol-based hand gel or wipe.

3. Clean surfaces in kitchens and bathrooms that are touched frequently with an EPA-registered disinfectant. These products typically contain alcohol or bleach. Lysol spray is a common example.

Stomach illnesses from eating leafy greens have been on the rise of late, and I recently got good advice from food safety experts on how to reduce the risk of getting bad bugs from food.

The good news, if you can call it that: Stomach flu usually lasts just one or two days. But a person can spread norovirus for three days after they get better, according to the CDC. So, no rest for the germ police!


Corrected on 11/11/08: An earlier version of this article incorrectly located Hope College. It is in Michigan.