Vomiting, Diarrhea, and Nausea, Oh My! Everything You Need to Know About Norovirus
By Sandra D. Lane
As people who plan to survive any possible coming disaster, we store food. We store food to help us get through whatever life throws at us, and so we can be more independent and rely less on others. We also store food for the peace of mind it affords us in knowing we aren’t just days or weeks away from selling what we’ve worked hard to acquire; from begging to prevent our own starvation. We’re taking responsibility for our own future and teaching our children and grand-children to do the same.
There is a hazard in doing this, however, if we don’t do it ‘the right way’; a hazard we need to always be mindful of, and take great care in preventing: Food Poisoning. Food poisoning is the result of pathogens in our food that consist of bacteria, viruses and/or parasites. According to the Centers for Disease Control, there are over 250 identified foodborne diseases. In a series of articles, I’d like to go over several of the most common foodborne illnesses, including how they’re caused and how to prevent them, and several of the most dangerous foodborne illnesses.
Foodborne illnesses have always been around, but are becoming more common.
Simply put, more than likely, people have been getting sick from eating food for as long as we’ve been eating food. Looking back in time, there have been educated guesses as to what killed various peoples of importance. One article written by Ross Anderson states that University of Maryland doctors believe Alexander the Great died from Salmonella typhi; a summarization of which can be found in a 1998 article in the New England Journal of Medicine.
We need not go back that far to discover foodborne illnesses though.
The worst foodborne illness outbreak in recorded history, accredited so by the number of deaths, happened in 2011 in Germany where almost 4,000 people were infected with E.coli, and 53 people died, all from frozen strawberries. That same year, in the United States, a listeriosis strain that contaminated cantaloupe grown in Colorado caused another deadly foodborne illness outbreak, credited with being the third-worst in recorded history. It affected 147 people across 28 states, killing 33.
So why is this problem becoming more prevalent?
The CDC says 1 in 10 people are sickened with some type of foodborne illness daily, and estimates that each year 48 million people get sick from a foodborne illness, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die. Why?
There are several possible reasons given, and there are plenty of facts to go along with them. If you buy any food from a store, think of how many times the food you eat is touched – from the hands of the farmers that grow the food, the hands of the ranchers that tend the animals, to yours. Ask yourself how clean are those hands in relation to harmful bacteria and viruses? How clean is the environment the food is grown in? How clean is the environment it’s packaged in? How many people have to show up to work whether they’re sick or not just so they can keep their job? How many unload your produce to the store?
With the world’s population as large as it is, with so many countries involved in importing and exporting foods, the number of times our food is handled, transported, cooled, heated, cooled, misted, bagged, shoved in the hot or cold car, then finally put in our homes well exceeds what I’d assume to be safe. And that’s just a few examples and doesn’t even take into account the slaughterhouses, meat processing plants, etc. But none of those are the biggest contributors to foodborne illnesses.
The main culprit in the transmission of these diseases may surprise you.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, the number one cause of foodborne illnesses is not the bacteria or germs the food may be infected with. It’s the people who handle the food. Us. We who purchase, store, preserve, prepare, and serve what is eaten are responsible for taking proper measures to ensure neither we or our families get sick. Obviously, we can’t always prevent food poisoning, as the person who eats it has a responsibility as well. However, the manner in which we personally clean and cook our food, how we store food, and what we choose to store, all play an extremely important part in preventing foodborne illnesses – both in the present and the future.
While canning some chicken stock last week I realized that many people are likely to become sick with, and die from, a foodborne illness in a major long-term disaster simply because they don’t know the proper way to store many foods. Without electricity – at least enough to run a small refrigerator – it will be almost impossible to keep any foods from going bad pretty quick in hot places like the southwest United States. Some people insist on water bath canning cheese and butter anyway, and while that may well work, I won’t be eating any of it. Others like to show how to store food in jars without taking the proper precautions of cleaning their equipment and work area. I admire their desire to prepare, but their examples may end up getting many people killed. When it comes to canning food, there are many ways to do it, and then there’s the right way. “Your preserved food is only as safe and sanitary as the vessels you put it into,” as Daisy Luther explains in How to Sanitize Jars for Canning.
We’ll get back to all that later. First, we need to have a better understanding of the most popular foodborne illnesses, and also that of the deadliest. Then we can learn the best way to prevent them from hurting us and our families.
Norovirus is the leading cause of foodborne illness.
According to the Food and Drug Administration and the American Medical Association, the most common foodborne illness is often incorrectly called the stomach bug or flu, when in fact it’s nothing like influenza at all. Instead, it wreaks havoc on our stomach and intestines and can cause a fever. It’s highly contagious until 3 days minimum after the infected no longer has symptoms, or 2 weeks later, and spreads quickly. It can cause dehydration and even death in the worst cases and affects people of all ages. It’s called Norovirus.
Norovirus, formerly known as the Norwalk Agent, causes approximately 685 million cases and 200,000 deaths worldwide – yearly. It is transmitted by food, water, touch from someone with the virus, and can be aerosolized. Think of someone who has the infection, uses the bathroom, then flushes with the lid open. Or someone who vomits. In short, it only takes a few tiny particles of norovirus to make you sick. And it does make you very sick indeed.
The symptoms of norovirus infection include:
- stomach pain
Sometimes, people also have:
- body aches
You may have heard of whole cruise ships coming down with this virus, or restaurant patrons. My family and I went to a July 4th cookout one year and came home with norovirus. It felt like we were dying for 2 days. Projectile vomiting, diarrhea, (both of them the kind where you aren’t sure if you should sit or kneel at the toilet), painful stomach cramps, fever, and dehydration. We found out later that everyone at the cookout had been sick. Thankfully everyone recovered.
While you can get it from people already infected, and from contaminated water, some foods commonly involved with norovirus are leafy greens (such as lettuce, spinach), fresh fruits, and shellfish (such as oysters). One reason for this is temperatures above 145 degrees are needed to kill the virus. Lettuce isn’t usually cooked, nor are some fruits. Also, while steam is typically hotter than even boiling water (212 degrees F/100 degrees C), most oysters are quick steamed, and therefore don’t get hot enough to kill the virus.
How can we prevent ourselves from getting this nasty bug?
Or even from getting it twice? (Yes, you can have it multiple times, even in a row.) There is no vaccine yet, although one is being worked on, but there are other ways for prevention, and of killing the virus.
We have a type of routine in our family for norovirus, and it actually coincides with the influenza season. About a month after school starts, we stop eating out. We do this because people seem to start getting sick in the fall, which rolls right into flu season, which also seems to include strep outbreaks. While we did get norovirus in the heat of the summer, that’s rare, as the peak season for norovirus is usually November to April. So rather than take an extra chance of getting sick, we cook our food ourselves, at least for those five or six months. And as far as the holidays and family get-togethers, I cook then too.
As always, washing hands thoroughly with SOAP AND WATER (is it me, or have the new generations decided soap isn’t needed, that hand sanitizer is enough??) is paramount to the prevention of spreading germs in any situation. It takes at least 30 seconds of vigorous scrubbing of the hands and nails with soap and hot water to wash away tiny parts of the virus. Not kill; wash away. Norovirus is encapsulated, which means it is surrounded by a little capsid, or shell, that not even alcohol can get through – making alcohol and alcohol-based cleaners, about useless. I did mention how contagious this virus is, right?
The CDC recommends using bleach or bleach-based products to kill norovirus on surfaces, where norovirus can actually live for weeks. For clothing, sheets, blankets, etc., that may have vomit or feces on it, or simply the sweat from the infected person, it’s recommended it all be washed at the hottest temperature possible and dried at the hottest temperature possible. And, of course, if you can add bleach, do so.
You might be asking how this virus could affect the storage of food. Norovirus does not require oxygen. Like most viruses, oxygen is a potential threat to its capsid. Norovirus can survive freezing. It can also survive drying out. Imagine yourself storing up some apples in the freezer that you picked from your own tree. Then a little over 24 hours later you come down with norovirus. According to most medical experts like the CDC, you were contagious for two days before you showed symptoms.
Now imagine having no knowledge of the norovirus, how it functions, how best to prevent or kill it, and you pull out those apples you froze last fall in order to bake with them. That norovirus can survive freezing. As it starts to thaw in the saucepan you add some spices and taste just a bit of it to see if it needs any more. It only takes a minimum of 18 microscopic particles to get sick from norovirus. And you may not even know you’re sick for 12 to 48 hours. Who else will have tasted the apples?
Now imagine those apples thawing because you have no electricity. The entire county, maybe even the country, is without power. It’s a disaster scenario and you and yours are trying to stay away from town. You all get sick with norovirus and it’s a toss-up as to what’s more dangerous; the virus or trying to get to the hospital (if it’s still open).
As you can see, foodborne illnesses play a very important part in what foods we store, and how we store them, for future consumption. Not only can learning about, and understanding, them keep us healthier through the coming months and flu season, but it can also help protect us from very serious illnesses in the years to come.
Worst case scenario, if you are unable to avoid norovirus, here are some natural ways to ease the symptoms of vomiting and diarrhea.
What do you think?
Are you concerned about norovirus? Have you or your family ever gotten sick with this particularly nasty bug? What do you do to prevent infection with pathogens like norovirus? Please share your thoughts in the comments.
Sandra is a published artist, photographer, fellow prepper, and animal advocate.
About the Author
Sandra is a published artist, photographer, fellow prepper, and animal advocate.