Stomach Virus Presents Hidden Danger for Elderly


Just when the worst of flu season has passed, another illness is sweeping the country. Norovirus, often known as a plain, old stomach virus or sometimes a stomach flu, can spread like wildfire, especially within the confines of a nursing home or assisted living center.

You may have read about the recent outbreaks of norovirus on two Caribbean cruise ships, Royal Caribbean’s Explorer of the Seas and Princess Cruises’ Caribbean Princess, as well as on the Holland America cruise ship Veendam. The Explorer of the Seas outbreak was reported as the largest norovirus outbreak on any cruise ship in the past two decades.

Unsanitary conditions can contribute to the spread of norovirus, but so can simply living in close quarters. As with many illnesses, the risk of dangerous and potentially deadly side effects such as dehydration are even higher in the senior population. Consider this your five-minute primer on norovirus – its causes, symptoms and treatments.

What Is Norovirus?
Norovirus is a group of viruses that cause gastroenteritis, or an infection of the intestines, which typically causes vomiting and diarrhea. Because it is a virus, and not a bacteria, antibiotics are ineffective in its treatment. Additionally, the body doesn’t maintain an immunity to norovirus, so you can get it more than once, sometimes even more than once in a single season.

The virus is diagnosed by a stool sample but, if you have nausea, vomiting or diarrhea that comes on suddenly, there is a good chance it is norovirus, even if your doctor doesn’t test for it. While uncomfortable, the virus itself is rarely deadly, but dehydration caused by norovirus can be especially dangerous for older people.

Treatments for Norovirus
There is no effective treatment for norovirus other than rest and time. If the virus is accompanied by a fever or achiness, ibuprofen or acetimenophin can keep the patient more comfortable. A sick senior should never be forced to eat, but dry toast, rice or crackers may be offered and might actually help nausea subside. Ginger ale, made from real ginger and very lightly sweetened, may also help with nausea and vomiting.

The important thing in a senior suffering from norovirus is to prevent dehydration by offering water frequently. If the patient can’t keep water down, make sure to offer it at room temperature and advise the patient to take very small sips, waiting a few seconds between sips.

Symptoms of Dehydration
The most important aspect of treating norovirus is to ensure dehydration does not occur. Rehydration drinks may be offered, if the patient can keep them down. Be on the lookout for symptoms that include:

    • Dizziness or lightheadedness
    • Headache
    • Muscle cramps
    • Sunken eyes
    • Decrease in urine
    • Dry mouth and tongue

Severe dehydration may require hospitalization to receive fluids intravenously. Seniors experiencing intense weakness, confusion, or rapid heart rate should seek medical attention immediately.

Ways to Prevent Norovirus
While norovirus can be extremely uncomfortable, it’s rarely deadly. To reduce your chances of catching this virus, wash your hands frequently, especially after going to the bathroom or handling food.

If a member of a senior community develops norovirus, extra care should be taken to disinfect all common areas and remind the other residents to wash their hands frequently. The duration of the virus is rarely more than a few days, and the incubation period is just 24 to 48 hours. This means the stomach virus will pass quickly through an area, wreaking havoc, but will soon be forgotten.

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