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Think you may have the flu? It could be Norovirus.

You’re sick as a dog. Vomiting, sweating, exhausted, in and out of the bathroom all day.

It’s the flu, right? Maybe not.

It could be the Norovirus, a nasty little bug that loves close-quarters environments and causes inflammation of the stomach and intestines. Just last year, several cruise ships in the U.S. and abroad succumbed to outbreaks of the illness among passengers.

The reach of the Norovirus is not, however, limited to the cozy confines cruise liners. In fact, Norovirus is the leading cause of gastroenteritis in the U.S., responsible for about 20 million cases each year. The virus spreads quickly, typically through improper food preparation and human-to-human contact. In fact, the CDC has identified the virus as the most common cause of foodborne-disease outbreaks. Remember all the heat Chipotle was under a couple of years ago when customers were getting sick? Underneath many of the cases was the Norovirus.

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Norovirus is so rampant and spreads so quickly that it’s nearly as widespread as the common cold. Today, Norovirus outbreaks continue to spike across the country. Often mistaken for the stomach “flu,” Norovirus brings misery to millions of families and even forces some schools to close. It sends 70,000 people to the hospital every year.

And not only is Norovirus extremely contagious, it is also difficult to prevent. From a young age, we’re taught that washing our hands is a surefire way to avoid getting sick. The Norovirus is on to us; it’s more difficult to wash away than other infectious diseases. Studies have shown that a quick application of hand sanitizer won’t do the trick. It takes about 30 seconds of vigorous hand washing, using hot water and soap, to wash away the tiny specks of virus.

Norovirus is a hearty little organism. In studies on how the virus spreads and how long it survives outside the body, researchers found that particles released during vomiting were still viable two weeks later. And it doesn’t take much of the virus to infect you. During vomiting by an infected person, at least a million viral particles are released.  People can be infected with as few as 20 to 1,300 particles; hence the reason the virus is so contagious.

So what can we do to protect ourselves? Before you swear off cruises and eating out and put yourself in quarantine, consider more moderate preventative measures. Always practice thorough and frequent hand washing. Steer clear of people who are sick, disinfect contaminated surfaces, and wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly. And if you do get sick, wash your clothes in case they are contaminated, and don’t prepare food or try to care for others who may be sick. Your friends and family will thank you.

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