Cleaning to Prevent Spread of the Norovirus

Sponge covered in germs
Norovirus germs can be very difficult to kill. Aerotoons/Getty Images

Norovirus is a highly contagious virus that causes "stomach flu". It is the leading viral cause of vomiting and diarrhea. Once known as "the cruise ship virus", it now causes outbreaks of gastroenteritis everywhere.

Being exposed to just a tiny amount of the virus can make you sick, making it much more contagious than other illnesses like influenza. It generally takes exposure to about 1,000 influenza virus particles to make a person sick but only 18 particles of norovirus can make you sick. It can also live on hard surfaces for up to two weeks unlike many respiratory viruses (like colds and the flu) that can only survive outside the body for a few hours. 

It causes outbreaks in the food service industry when people that are preparing food have it or come back to work too soon after having it, exposing all of the people that eat the food they prepare. It's also extremely difficult to prevent the spread of the virus in families. Once one family member gets it, very frequently everyone else in the house will get it as well.

What Can You Do for Prevention?

Because it takes so little of the virus, to make someone sick, it is hard to prevent. But there are things you can do to reduce your risk. 

Wash Your Hands. This is important. Wash your hands frequently and correctly. Using hand sanitizer also may help, but it is not very effective at killing norovirus, so washing your hands with soap and water is even more important. Make sure you wash thoroughly for at least 20 seconds - the time it takes to sing the "Happy Birthday" song twice. 

Clean, Clean, Clean. When you have norovirus and you are vomiting, the last thing you will feel like doing is cleaning. But making sure you clean after vomiting or having diarrhea will get rid of the particles that spread the germs. Make sure you clean with a product that contains bleach or make your own bleach-based cleaner with bleach and water (about 1 cup of bleach to 1 gallon of water). Using products that don't contain bleach won't do any good - they won't kill the virus. 

Do Laundry. Wash your clothes, bed linens, towels and anything else that has come into contact with you while you have been sick. Wash in hot water and dry in the dryer to ensure they are as clean as possible. 

Don't Prepare Food. If you are sick with norovirus or you have had symptoms of it in the past two days, don't prepare food for anyone else. The highly contagious virus is frequently spread through food when someone who has had it prepares food for others. Although washing your hands will help remove the germs, it takes so little of the virus to make someone else sick that it isn't worth the risk. If there is someone else in your home that can prepare food, make sure they do so while you are sick and recovering. 

Stay "Quarantined". Technically you aren't truly quarantined when you have norovirus, but staying away from other people will help protect them from getting sick. If you can, try to stay in your room and use only one bathroom when you are sick. Others who live in the house should try to stay away from the "sick room" until you have recovered - and cleaned. 

If You Aren't Sick Yet

If you live in the same house with someone who has norovirus (or you suspect they do) but you don't yet have it, there are additional steps you can take to attempt to protect yourself. 

Wear Gloves. If you are caring for someone with norovirus, it's unlikely they will be up to cleaning. You may be the one cleaning most often and this can put you in direct contact with the virus you are trying to avoid. The best thing you can do to try to prevent yourself from getting it is to wear gloves every time you clean something. Whether it's the bathroom or laundry that your sick loved one has used, wearing gloves provides an extra barrier between you and the virus. While you wear the gloves, make sure you don't touch your nose, eyes or mouth with them and wash your hands as soon as you take them off. 

Stay Away. It sounds mean, but staying away from the person who is sick as much as possible will help protect you from getting it. Sleep in a different room, use a different bathroom and keep as much distance as possible to avoid spreading the illness around the house. 

Don't Share. You should have learned that sharing is important as a young child, but not this time. Sharing items that your sick spouse, child or roommate has used is a sure-fire way to get sick yourself. Even sharing the remote control for the TV could be bad news. If the person who is sick uses the remote and has the virus on her hands, then you use it and you get the virus on your hands as well. You may touch your mouth, nose or eyes without even realizing it and infect yourself that easily. 

It is extremely difficult to avoid getting norovirus when someone in your house has it. It is spread so easily and is so contagious that it almost always affects nearly everyone living under the same roof. But taking these steps certainly won't hurt and they will reduce your chances of getting sick or spreading your illness to someone else. 

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Article Sources
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  • "Preventing Norovirus Outbreaks". Vital Signs. Food Safety. 3 Jun 14. US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Department of Health and Human Services. National Institutes of Health. 5 Mar 16. 
  • "Preventing Norovirus Infection". Norovirus 10 Dec 15. US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Department of Health and Human Services. National Institutes of Health. 24 Apr 16.