Friday, March 21, 2014


If you ask people to name the most common cause of foodborne illness (“food poisoning”), they would probably say Salmonella or E.coli bacteria. But the most common cause is actually a virus – norovirus (which used to be called “Norwalk-like virus). I am particularly aware of this because I had it last week. Believe me, I am SO glad it is over.

Alright, it was basically only one evening and night of absolute misery, but it took several days for me to get my strength back. And when I finally got to see my doctor yesterday, she said a lot of it was “going around” in our part of California. Believe me, if it hits other people as hard as it hit me, I feel very sorry for them.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), norovirus causes over half of all cases of food poisoning in the United States. In fact, it causes about five times as many cases as do Salmonella bacteria. But if you look at food poisoning from the point of view of people becoming so sick that they have to be hospitalized, norovirus comes in second – after Salmonella.

Let’s go one step further still – If you then look at causes of food poisoning that have resulted in death, norovirus comes in fourth – after Salmonella, Toxoplasma gondii, and Listeria monocytogenes . Yes, I certainly felt like death with norovirus, but in actual fact, it only kills about 11% of victims of food poisoning.

Norovirus can get into your food such as a salad, sandwich or other ready-to-eat or catered or restaurant items, entering via kitchen workers or food processors. But food isn’t the only way you can catch it. You can also get it from water, from surfaces and from direct contact with someone who is ill with the virus. How did I get it? My guess is from cleaning and opening oysters. Just because I don't eat them, doesn't mean I don't serve them to others.

Let's go back to the numbers again. So if you take all the ways you can catch norovirus into account (not just food) - each year on average 19 to 21 million cases of acute gastroenteritis are caused by noroviruses in the United States. That means about 1 in every 15 Americans will get a bad case of norovirus illness this year and some 570 to 800 of these people will actually die of it.

So what are the symptoms of norovirus? Basically vomiting, diarrhea, stomach cramps and sometimes a headache, fatigue, low-grade fever, and muscle aches. If you get dehydrated, you could also have a dry throat and decrease in urination. It sounds like the flu doesn’t it? But it isn’t. Even though norovirus illness is sometimes called “stomach flu” it is not related to the influenza virus.

Unfortunately there is no vaccine and no treatment for norovirus. Antibiotics do not work with viruses. Just tough it out – as I did, drinking lots of water and once you can tolerate them, beverages that replace your electrolytes such as sports drinks and other drinks or juices without caffeine or alcohol. And rest.

To your good health,