Dreaded ‘stomach flu’ wreaks havoc at Olympics and home

Physician Dawn DeWitt works with students at the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine
Physician Dawn DeWitt works with students at the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine

By Linda Weiford, WSU News

What do the 2018 Olympics, cruise ships and public facilities have in common?

They all serve as hospitable environments for a dreaded intestinal bug called norovirus.

Nicknamed the “Ferrari of viruses” for the speed of which it spreads, “chances are, you’ve had norovirus, and it’s hard to forget it when you do,” said internal medicine physician Dawn DeWitt, associate dean of clinical education at Washington State University’s Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine.

A highly contagious viral infection that causes nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, it is common this time of year, with most outbreaks occurring November through April, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A recent outbreak that dominated headlines occurred at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, where about 250 people, including security staff, volunteers and two Swiss athletes, were infected.

Meanwhile, Washington state has experienced several norovirus outbreaks since mid-December.

The largest flurry of cases hit in early January, when more than 400 people were sickened after eating at two Tacoma-area restaurants. Just after Christmas, another outbreak in Tacoma infected 40 residents and staff members of a senior living community. Two weeks earlier, at least three dozen Stevens County residents got sick enough to seek medical care during an outbreak.

Infecting up to 21 million Americans annually, norovirus is the leading cause of gastrointestinal infections in the United States, said DeWitt.

“The virus thrives in confined spaces where people congregate, such as schools, nursing homes and day-care facilities,” she said. “People feel miserable when they contract it. Fortunately, most of them recover within a few days.”

Norovirus is spread from person to person, through contaminated food or water, or simply by touching a contaminated surface, said DeWitt. What’s more, the virus is encased in a structure called a capsid, making it hard to kill.

“It can survive for weeks on hard surfaces — another reason why it’s so important for people thoroughly wash their hands,” she explained.

Because the virus is resistant to many common disinfectants, the CDC recommends using a bleach and water solution to disinfect contaminated surfaces. (To see how to prepare it, go to: https://www.cdc.gov/norovirus/preventing-infection.html)

Norovirus is often called the stomach flu or 24-hour flu. The problem is, neither of those exist, said DeWitt.

“Flu is caused by the influenza virus, which infects the respiratory system and causes coughing, congestion, fever, and muscle aches. Norovirus attacks the digestive tract, causing vomiting and diarrhea,” she explained.

While they are completely different viruses, they both share the ability to mutate into new strains. Consequently, they can infect people multiple times during a lifetime.


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