Everything you need to know about norovirus, the illness afflicting Boston College students

The stomach virus has sickened more than 140 BC students after they ate at a Boston Chipotle restaurant.

Workers cleaned the closed Chipotle Restaurant in Cleveland Circle. Scores of Boston College students have fallen ill after eating at a Chipotle restaurant near campus during the weekend. —Suzanne Kreiter / The Boston Globe

More than 140 Boston College students have been sickened by norovirus after eating at a nearby Chipotle restaurant, the university said this week. And the number of sick students keeps on growing.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, each year in the U.S., norovirus causes 19 to 21 million cases of inflammation of the stomach or intestines and leads to 400,000 emergency room visits.

You may remember the norovirus outbreak on several cruise ships earlier this year that afflicted hundreds of passengers. But you don’t have to take a cruise to contract the illness.

We asked Thomas Webster, a professor at Northeastern University, to educate us on all things norovirus: what it is, how it’s spread, and what we can do to combat it.

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How common is it to get norovirus, and how worried should we be?

I think it’s pretty common. There’s not many deaths [from it], fortunately. Though it disrupts your life, it really only results in death if you are really young or really old. And many of the deaths that result from norovirus are due to dehydration issues.

Where does it come from?

It can come from raw foods, like shellfish and sushi. It’s really just like any other virus that’s constantly around. It’s just when we get into close contact with it that it becomes a problem and we spread it.

How is it spread?

The primary way it’s spread is by touching surfaces and airborne. Airborne is the biggest problem. Viruses can travel a long distance in the air. A lot of people are very conscious of touching surfaces. But (when it’s) airborne, you have no idea. You just don’t know if you are riding the train and someone next to you is exposed and they don’t show symptoms yet and then they cough or sneeze.

Norovirus can be spread when someone who is infected sneezes. —Flickr / 729:512

What are the symptoms?

Cramping in the stomach, diarrhea, vomiting, headaches usually come very early on. You often hear people complain about fatigue and getting tired.

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How long does it take to leave the system?

It has a day or two day incubation period. After the first exposure, that’s how long it takes for symptoms to show up. It could be two to three to four days when you actually have the symptoms. Then a day or so after the symptoms finish, you’re back to normal.

How is it treated?

Unfortunately, for viruses, there is nothing we have (to treat it). The only thing you can do is try to stay hydrated. If you have a bacteria that has infected you, we do have drugs that can kill the bacteria and get rid of it. But, unfortunately, for viruses, there is nothing.

If you contract norovirus, it’s important to stay hydrated, said Webster. —Shutterstock / Aaron Amat

How is norovirus different from E.coli?

What makes this difficult is the symptoms (of norovirus and E.coli) are very similar. That leads to some confusion. The big difference is we can’t treat a virus. But we can kill bacteria. If this was an E.coli episode at Chipotle, I think we’d feel safer because we do have some drugs that can be used against E.coli to treat it. But, really, with viruses, it’s a completely different picture.

How do we avoid catching norovirus in public places?

Hygiene. Make sure you bring that little container of hand cleanser. Make sure you don’t touch things unnecessarily. Limiting exposure to surfaces. And, of course, everybody has to touch surfaces, so making sure you wash your hands regularly.

Wash your hands regularly to fend off norovirus, said Webster. —AP / Rob Carr

In places like Chipotle, where your food is prepared in front of you, are your chances higher of contracting norovirus?

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I think anytime you have open food and are preparing it, and it’s in the public, you increase the chance for these kind of contamination issues. It’s ironic, right, because I think reasons why places like Chipotle (prepare food in front of you) is because they want you to see how fresh the food is. And we all like to watch them prepare our food. But there is a downside to that too.

Are you working on anything at Northeastern related to norovirus?

We are developing materials that can bond to these viruses and indicate if a surface wasn’t cleaned properly. Wouldn’t that be great? On non-food surfaces, we have a spray. It’s almost like a Windex that you actually spray onto whatever surface. If there is a norovirus that’s present, then it will stain that color. And then you can wipe it clean. It’s, of course, not commercially available yet.

Can we expect this spray anytime soon?

We’re hoping within the next couple of years that this spray can be used. Definitely the biggest question is, how safe is it? It’s great for detecting viruses, but how safe is it after you’ve cleaned the surface? That’s what we’re working on.

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