Food poisoning? Or norovirus? | Public Health Insider

“Uh-oh. My little brother just threw up in the hallway.” It’s not an utterance anyone wants to hear from a dinner guest. Fortunately for my reputation as a cook, it was unrelated to the food I served that evening. The child’s apologetic parents later told me that he had norovirus, a common cause of vomiting and diarrhea, that he had likely acquired at school.

  • Monday, December 21, 2015 3:36pm
  • News

Health news

The following is written by  for Public Health Insider:

“Uh-oh. My little brother just threw up in the hallway.”

It’s not an utterance anyone wants to hear from a dinner guest. Fortunately for my reputation as a cook, it was unrelated to the food I served that evening. The child’s apologetic parents later told me that he had norovirus, a common cause of vomiting and diarrhea, that he had likely acquired at school.

A very bad week at school

That week, the virus swept quickly through his elementary school, the same one my child attended. Parents told horror stories of the children sitting in a row with buckets, waiting for their parents to pick them up. The janitor and teachers reportedly sanitized the desks, chairs, and doorknobs during recess while the older children stood by the doors holding hand sanitizer dispensers, requiring all the children to have a pump before coming back into the classrooms. On a single day during that outbreak, nearly one-third of the student body was absent from school.

According to Dr. Meagan Kay, medical epidemiologist at Public Health, norovirus is highly contagious, and infected people are mostly likely to spread it from the moment they feel ill until at least three days after they no longer have symptoms. Even after this most contagious period, the virus can stay in your system for up to two weeks, so it’s good to be extra diligent about hand washing during those weeks.

Norovirus spreads through:

  • close contact with an infected person (such as sharing utensils or taking care of someone who is sick with norovirus),
  • touching surfaces and objects that have been contaminated with norovirus, or
  • eating foods that have been contaminated with the virus.

“With that ability to spread, you can see how norovirus is a common culprit in outbreaks of vomiting and diarrhea that happen in schools, child care centers, long term care facilities for the elderly, and on cruise ships,” said Kay. “And you can get norovirus more than once in your life. So just because you got it once doesn’t mean you are protected from ever getting it again, unfortunately.”

Feels like food poisoning, but it’s probably not the food

Although people often attribute symptoms of norovirus to food poisoning, it’s often not the food but the food handler that’s causing the illness. If the food handler has been sick with norovirus, they can contaminate food, especially foods that are undercooked or served raw, like produce.

“Most people aren’t tested for norovirus, so we don’t have exact figures for actual cases. But the majority of foodborne illness outbreaks we investigate are likely norovirus,” said Kay.

In praise of bleach

As contagious as norovirus is, it’s not inevitable that you will get it. Once again, follow the public health mantra and wash your hands with soap and water frequently. Also wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly before eating them, and avoid undercooked foods. And if someone gets sick — like my young dinner guest — make sure you put on gloves and promptly clean and disinfect toilets, sinks, and other areas that may be contaminated with vomit or stool, including removing and washing clothing and linens.

At my dinner party, the parents of the sick child graciously did the initial cleaning, and my husband and I went to town with bleach afterwards. We felt like ticking time bombs for the next few days, just waiting for the telltale nausea. While our daughter was not so lucky (having played with the same X-box controller as the sick child), my husband and I managed to escape that time.

I’ve not always been able to avoid norovirus, and in my experience, the suddenness and, uh, vigor of the symptoms is disconcerting and terrible. But while it may make you feel very sick for a few days, norovirus illness is seldom truly serious. Dehydration can be a problem, especially for the very old or very young, so it’s important to drink plenty of fluids and get rest. And avoid preparing food for others for at least two to three days after symptoms have ended, or you could be held to blame for a very bad dinner party.

More on our website about how Public Health investigates norovirus and facts about norovirus.



Talk to us

Please share your story tips by emailing

To share your opinion for publication, submit a letter through our website Include your name, address and daytime phone number. (We’ll only publish your name and hometown.) Please keep letters to 500 words or less.

More in News

Aaron Kunkler/staff photo
Alvin Sweet is a resident of Martin Court in Seattle’s Georgetown neighborhood. Martin Court is a former motel which was transformed into a supportive housing complex two decades ago. New funding from King County’s Health through Housing ordinance could expand this type of program across the county.
King County wants to buy motels for emergency, affordable housing

The concept has proven results in addressing homelessness.

Two signs are found on the Enumclaw Youth Center window this week. The older, on the right, explains the center's March closure. The sheet on the left announces the center will now be open four hours per week. Photo by Kevin Hanson
Enumclaw Council unhappy with Youth Center, cuts funding

The Youth Center hasn’t been open to the public until recently due to the pandemic, although it received $70,000 from the city at the beginning of 2020 to offer services.

Image courtesy the Enumclaw Drama Club
EHS drama students offer remote version of “Frankenstein”

Sign up now to catch a performance on Oct. 29, 30, or 31.

Courtesy image
Local nursing homes offer webinar on senior depression

The webinar is scheduled for Thursday, Oct. 29.

Courtesy image
Sunday weather allowed for continued search for Rainier hiker

It’s been two weeks since Sam Dubal was reported missing.

The Enumclaw pool won’t be filled for several months more, as extra repairs need to be done first.  Photo by Ray Miller-Still
Cold water thrown on pool’s grand-reopening

Plans to open the pool early November have been scrapped as more repairs appear necessary.

Courtesy photo
State demanded more drop boxes, and now it must pay for them

A King County judge says a law requiring more ballot boxes was an illegal unfunded mandate.

©1998  EyeWire, Inc.
Flu vaccine now available for uninsured adults at no cost | DOH

Uninsured Plateau residents can get their shot in Kent of Renton.

Vote pin for american election

Most Read