Flu, Norovirus Bugging Boston

While seasonal influenza remains the city's main health issue, officials say the stomach bug is widespread right now, too.

The Boston area is seeing more than just the flu this time of year. The “winter vomiting bug,” or norovirus, is making its rounds as well.

“The norovirus, which many people call the stomach flu, is widespread this year,” said Katinka Podmaniczky, assistant director of communications for the Boston Public Health Commission. “We encourage everyone to take simple precautions to protect themselves and others, like washing hands frequently and staying home if you feel sick.”

In Boston, right now about 2.5 percent of all emergency room visits are related to accute gastrointenstinal problems, which may or may not be caused by a norovirus, according to a Health Commission report. This time last year, that number was just over 3 percent. The commission did not have data for the total number of people reporting GI issues outside the ER.

Seasonal influenza—in particular, influenza A—remains the largest health problem in Boston this season, with more than 1,220 cases reported since Oct. 1, according to the Health Commission’s latest report, dated Jan. 19. However, there has been a slight decrease in cases from earlier this month, when Mayor Thomas Menino declared a public health emergency.

In all, there have been 12 flu-related deaths in the city of Boston, including 11 people over age 65 and one child under six years old. Twenty-five percent of the cases have been hospitalized, with about 76 percent of those cases involving adults age 45 and over who have underlying medical conditions, according to the BPHC.

What is norovirus?

While the flu often causes respiratory problems, noroviruses specifically affect the body’s gastrointestinal system, causing diarrhea, vomiting and stomach pain. Sometimes referred to as "viral gastroenteritis," "stomach flu" and "food poisoning," the virus is easily spread and thus pretty common, according to the BPHC. But it is not actually related to influenza.

“Symptoms usually begin one to two days after exposure to the virus but can occur as early as 12 hours after exposure,” a BPHC fact sheet states. “Common symptoms include nausea, diarrhea, vomiting and stomach pain. Sometimes people may develop low-grade fever, chills, headache, muscle aches and tiredness. The illness may come on suddenly, and it is possible to have norovirus infection many times. Sometimes people with norovirus have no symptoms at all, but can still pass the infection on to others.”

The Boston Public Health Commission recommends that people experiencing norovirus symptoms drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration and be sure to wash their hands often and thoroughly to avoid spreading the virus to others. Individuals should contact their healthcare providers if they do not recover quickly—within one to three days—or if they are at risk for dehydration or have any other concerns.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the norovirus causes about 70,000 hospitalizations and 800 deaths each year, mostly in young children and the elderly.

Tips for preventing illness

Unlike with the flu, Boston residents cannot get a vaccine against norovirus. The best method of prevention is to take extra care in washing your hands, clothing and food.

The CDC offers these tips to preventing the spread of the virus:

  • Wash your hands often and carefully, with soap and water.
  • Carefully wash fruits and vegetables before preparing and eating them.
  • Cook oysters and other shellfish thoroughly (at 140 degrees or higher).
  • Disinfect contaminated surfaces with a bleach-based cleanser and wash soiled clothes and linens, then tumble dry.
  • When you’re sick, don’t prepare food or care for others, and wait two to three days after you recover to return to these activities.

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