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Mark Bennett B-Sides

January 17, 2013

MARK BENNETT: By whatever name, stomach virus still a sick story

TERRE HAUTE — It’s the ugly side of the cold-and-flu season.

Nobody likes to discuss it, and for two excellent reasons.

a. The details are, well, gross, and …

b. As soon as you inject the phrase “everybody in our house has the stomach flu” into a conversation, people start backing away toward the door, wondering how long they can hold their breath. You might as well have said, “I’m radioactive.”

Yes, we’re referring to an ailment we all know and loathe as “the stomach flu,” but it’s really not the flu, and it’s really not fun. In a nutshell, “viral gastroenteritis” amounts to 24 to 48 hours of digestive-tract hell — vomiting, diarrhea, nausea, fever. To avoid spreading it, stay in an isolation booth like those used in the old “Dating Game” show. Otherwise, renew your acquaintance with Clorox bleach.

A nationwide surge in influenza cases has hit Indiana, Illinois and the Midwest with a “high activity level,” according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That is the actual flu, a virus involving an upper respiratory infection that causes chills, body aches, headaches, sore throat and coughing. Influenza can be particularly risky for young children, seniors, diabetics and folks with weakened immune systems. Public awareness about prevention of influenza, including the importance of flu shots, has been widespread this winter.

But “stomach flu” is prevalent this season, too. “We have seen increased activity of norovirus around the state,” said Pam Pontones, epidemiologist at the Indiana State Department of Health in Indianapolis, referring to a common strain of virus causing “stomach flu.”

Influenza and the “stomach flu” involve different viruses.

Viral gastroenteritis features inflammation of the stomach and intestines, and is most often caused by two unpleasant viruses — rotavirus in small children and the norovirus in adults. It’s helpful to be the latter, an adult, in discussing the manner in which the norovirus is spread. Boiling it down to one merciful sentence, noroviruses disseminate through the stool of infected persons, and can be rapidly transmitted through contaminated food or drinks, or through close contact with some poor soul who is ill with it.

“Norovirus is extremely contagious,” Pontones said.

And durable. Just a small amount of the norovirus on a surface can pass it along to unsuspecting Joe or Jane. It can linger on those surfaces for days, too.

The $64,000 question remains. Given its contagious nature, if someone in your household suddenly comes down with gastroenteritis, is it inevitable that everyone will also wind up throwing up?

Maybe.

“Because the amount of virus necessary to transmit is so small, it can be difficult — but not impossible — to keep it from spreading,” Pontones said.

Unlike influenza, there isn’t a “stomach flu” shot.

“Unfortunately, there’s no vaccine for the ‘stomach flu,’” said Sydney Elliott, health educator for the Vigo County Health Department. “That’s just something your body is going to have to work itself out.”

That doesn’t mean you have to just curl up in a ball and wait for that instantaneous, deer-in-the-headlights moment when nausea hits. Families can fight back by breaking out the bleach and protective gloves, Pontones said. If the home contains two or more bathrooms, give the sick person exclusive use of one of those. Use a bleach-to-water solution and wear rubber gloves when cleaning up after a “stomach flu” episode. Handwashing and use of alcohol-based hand sanitizers helps. Those who are ill should stay home from school or work and should not prepare any food.

Speaking of food, gastroenteritis disrupts, of course, routine consumption. Some sips of liquid will be necessary, though, as the ailment unfolds, Pontones explained. “It’s important, if possible, to rehydrate as much as you can,” she said.

The predicament has an upside, sort of.

“The good thing about norovirus is infection resolves in one to two days,” Pontones said. If the symptoms persist for more than 48 hours, the ill should consult their physician, she added.

Also, “people do develop immunity to norovirus once they have resolved infection,” she said.

But, like the TV show “Survivor,” that immunity doesn’t last long. And, we can’t just vote the “stomach flu” off the island. We must either outwit, outplay or outlast it.

In the meantime, keep washing those hands.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@

tribstar.com.

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