Avoid Norovirus During the Holidays

— Written By Katrina Levine
en Español / em Português

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People who study foodborne illness don’t get foodborne illness.


I thought that because I knew so much about preventing foodborne illness, I was protected from getting sick. Unfortunately, I was proven wrong at one of the worst times of year to be sick – the holidays. I spent Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with my sister, her husband, and two kids, and things started to go downhill Christmas Eve when my brother-in-law started feeling sick. It wasn’t 24 hours before my sister and I were suffering in separate bathrooms (because two sick people + one toilet = disaster). Our parents came up Christmas Day to help for a day or two, and by the time my mom got home she had it, too. My dad – a physician – somehow didn’t get it, but I do remember him constantly washing his hands.

Although it wasn’t confirmed, I’m almost positive it was norovirus. We think that my older niece had it first a week or so before Christmas, because she had been sick and likely picked up something from school. My brother-in-law got it because he replaced her broken toilet soon after. We know that norovirus can survive for weeks on surfaces. He must have had contact with either vomit or fecal matter when changing the toilet. I’m not sure how my sister and I got it, but it could be from using a contaminated bathroom, or having food that my brother-in-law handled after he was exposed to norovirus. I remember letting him try a sip of my drink at dinner Christmas Eve. My poor mother probably got caught in the contamination crossfire, and contracted symptoms a few days later. We never figured out how my youngest niece, who was 2 at the time, didn’t get it, but are very thankful we didn’t also have also have two sick kids to deal with while the rest of us were under the weather.

If this experience taught me one thing (besides that norovirus is awful), it’s that food safety is about risk. It’s about doing what you can to decrease the risk that people will get sick. We don’t live in sterile bubbles, so there will be times when events are out of our control, like a kid bringing home a virus they picked up at school. But there are things we can do to protect ourselves. The virus got into my sister’s house, but once we realized what was going, we could have helped at least control the virus and keep it from spreading. My sister and her husband may not have realized that my niece had norovirus, but once my brother-in-law got sick, we could have reduced the risk of spreading it by thoroughly cleaning and sanitizing with chlorine bleach the bathroom he used, keeping him from handling any food or even being in the kitchen, and making sure we all washed our hands very well with soap and water. We could have taken extra precautions once we knew that there was illness.

On the plus side, spending two days in the bathroom hugging the toilet gave me practical experience that I can use to help teach about preventing norovirus and other foodborne illnesses. We talk about how bad foodborne illness can be, but nothing compares to experiencing it first-hand. It might be enough to help us relate better to people and convince them to change their behavior. It sure worked for me. Now, whenever I notice someone is sick, I vamp up my personal hygiene and stay way from that person or any food they’ve prepared. It’s nothing personal, I just hate being sick.

If you take away anything from this story, remember that a lot of the things you have control over – like washing your hands longer using soap and water instead of using hand sanitizer, or grabbing a paper towel instead of a used towel to dry your hands – can make a huge difference, and the brief “sacrifice” in time, convenience, or personal relationships isn’t worth the days you’ll lose confined to the bathroom. (Most commercial hand sanitizers aren’t effective against norovirus!) I would even argue you actually lose more time and convenience, as well as stress your relationships, when you’re the one who is sick.

This particular holiday season goes down in the books for my family as the most miserable Christmas ever. We don’t talk about it often, but generally refer to it now as “that Christmas.” We now keep our fingers crossed (and hands washed) that it won’t ever happen again. Hopefully with a watchful eye and careful hands, it won’t happen to you or your loved ones, either!

For more holiday food safety tips (and gift ideas), follow @SafePlatesFSIC on Facebook and Twitter, and @safeplates_ncsu on Instagram.

Photo from Pexels.com (public domain)