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Norwalk Virus Hits Seniors Hard

Each year, many seniors are infected by a Norwalk-type virus. It's usually not serious enough to cause hospitalization or serious long-term effects, but Norwalk can cause distress and can be spread to other family members. This illness is more common in the winter and affects all age groups.

What is a "Norwalk" infection?
Norwalk is a viral infection in the intestine - named after it was first identified in a 1972 outbreak in Norwalk, Ohio. Today, we use the term "norovirus" to refer to the group of viruses.

Noroviruses are found worldwide and affect only humans. Anyone can be infected but it tends to be more common in children and in older adults. An outbreak of Norwalk infection usually occurs in schools and institutions or within families.

How is the virus spread?
Noroviruses are very contagious. They can survive on almost any surface including door handles, counters, sinks, and dishes. People become infected by swallowing food or water that has been contaminated from an infected person or by touching an infected surface. People are contagious from the first sign of symptoms and for at least 3 days after they recover.

What are the symptoms of Norwalk infection? How is it treated?
Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and stomach cramps. They appear within 1 - 2 days after ingesting the contaminated food and can occur quite suddenly. Most people recover in 2 to 3 days.
There is no treatment for the infection itself. Any treatment given is aimed at reducing the symptoms.

What can you do to prevent Norwalk virus infection?
Focus on personal hygiene and proper food preparation. If you or someone in your home has a Norwalk-type infection, all of you should:

  • Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water after toilet visits and before preparing or eating food.
  • Wash raw vegetables before eating.
  • Dispose of sewage in a sanitary manner.
  • Wear household gloves to clean contaminated surfaces with a mild bleach solution. 
  • Clean the bathroom frequently.
  • Wash dishes in hot soapy water or, ideally, the dishwasher.
  • Wash soiled linens in hot soapy water; wear gloves to handle the linens.
  • Individuals with symptoms of Norwalk-like illness should not prepare or touch food.
  • Restrict visitors to the home.

What can you do if a family member has Norwalk virus?
If your family member lives in a long-term care centre, visiting will be limited during an outbreak. If they are at home, you can provide support and ensure good personal hygiene to prevent the spread to other family members.

Norwalk virus infections are unpleasant to say the least, but a little knowledge and attention can go a long way towards curbing their effects.

� ElderWise, 2010


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