Every day that you are in close contact with other people – including family, office workers, friends, teammates, fellow worshippers, children and anyone else – is a day you are being exposed to a variety of viral illnesses.
The most commonly discussed viral illness during this time of year is the influenza type, or flu. This dangerous virus is making its way through the communities of the Western hemisphere right now.
Although a flu vaccine is available, even officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention admit the vaccine is only about 60 percent effective. That is why there are always reported cases of flu illness in people who had the vaccine.
That means the flu vaccine only partially protects you from the flu. Even if you receive the vaccine, you are still susceptible to catching it.
You might think of the vaccine’s effectiveness being equivalent to that of a raincoat made of porous material. It works, sort of, but not in the way many people imagine.
Recently, another virus has become newsworthy due to its rapid spread and severe consequences. The norovirus is sometimes called the “stomach flu” even though it has no relationship to the actual flu virus.
The norovirus is actually easier to catch and harder to kill than the influenza virus.
Norovirus can cause severe stomach cramps, vomiting and diarrhea, and it spreads extremely rapidly through groups of people in close contact.
Anyone who has become ill with norovirus can spread the disease as soon as they notice symptoms and as long as two weeks after they are well. However, most people are no longer contagious about three days after they recover.
Thankfully, in most cases the illness only lasts about two or three days, but those few days can be extraordinarily miserable.
The symptoms of norovirus often appear very suddenly. A person may be feeling fine and then begin feeling queasy. What follows is often unexpected diarrhea or vomiting. These symptoms may be accompanied by very painful abdominal cramping.
A few years ago, I narrowly avoided becoming ill with norovirus at a family gathering. One of the relatives had been exposed to the illness through a day care.
Literally, every member of the family at that Thanksgiving dinner became severely ill, except me. One by one the family members went through a wave of symptoms that were so severe most had to take to their bed for several hours.
Throughout the next 24 hours, the virus spread through the family like a tsunami wave of cramps, vomiting and diarrhea.
Most started to recover from the most severe symptoms about 14 hours after their initial pain began, but none were really feeling their best again for almost week.
As I looked back at the event, I tried to determine how I had been so fortunate to avoid the bug. I believe the only thing that saved me was repetitious, thorough hand washing.
If not for my meticulous hand washing, I think I would have been among the sufferers.
That brings me to my next point about the norovirus: Unlike many germs, the norovirus is not killed easily by alcohol hand sanitizers.
Think that ritual dash of alcohol gel is protecting you? Probably, not.
Though alcohol sanitizers are trendy and often more convenient, soap and water reign supreme in the war on germs, especially hardy varieties like the norovirus.
Alcohol gel sanitizers typically are 70 percent alcohol solutions or less. Although this dilution can kill the norovirus, it requires a generous amount of the gel and a continual exposure of more than one minute.
So, if your only choice for disinfecting your hands is a gel sanitizer, use a lot of it and continue to work the solution into all surfaces of your skin for at least one minute. Anything less than that will not likely kill the norovirus.
To protect your health from these and other germs, it is still best to be fanatical about washing your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water.
Most importantly, after washing, avoid touching the faucet handles, towels or door handles everyone has been handling with dirty hands. Think ahead by grabbing a paper towel to turn off the water and open the door.