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The One Season No One Enjoys: Stomach Flu Season

As we enter the coldest months of the year here in the northeast, Pennsylvania hospitals and nursing homes are gearing up for the peak season for virus outbreaks.

Noroviruses, more commonly referred to as the stomach flu, are infections that cause vomiting and diarrhea. Most people can recover without any long-term problems. However, it can be a serious illness for those who are unable to care for themselves, such as infants, young children, the disabled, and the elderly. Hospitals and nursing homes consider stomach bugs dangerous germs that can sicken and even kill patients and residents.

The Morning Call (mcall.com) of Allentown recently reported that in the first 3 months of 2009, nursing homes in Pennsylvania reported 4,040 cases of the stomach flu – nearly twice as many as those reported in all the prior nine months combined. This data was reported by the Pennsylvania Patient Safety Authority, who also found that hospital infections peaked in the first quarter of the year, although not as dramatically as in nursing homes.

The authority found that on average, six people were sickened in hospital outbreaks, compared to an average of 25 cases per outbreak in nursing homes. The authority program director, Bill Marella, explained that in hospitals, sick patients can be segregated into single or double rooms. However, this is more difficult to do in nursing homes because these types of facilities are long-term living quarters.

Noroviruses are easily transmitted and difficult to eliminate. Noroviruses are spread when a person ingests something contaminated with tiny bits of infections fecal matter. So it’s important for nursing home staff, as well as caregivers, residents, and visitors to wash their hands thoroughly, especially before handling food or utensils. Noroviruses can also be spread by touching surfaces such as doorknobs, countertops, or keyboards or by drinking contaminated water. Health care facilities should have workers take extra care to wipe down surfaces and wash their hands diligently. To keep germs and the spread of viruses under control, many nursing facilities tell sick workers to stay home until they are well.

If you work in a nursing facility, or if you are visiting a loved one in a nursing home, there are ways you can protect yourself and others from the spread of noroviruses:

  • Remember to wash your hands thoroughly before, during, and after your visit to prevent catching any germs.
  • If you are ill, wait until you are fully recovered before visiting a nursing facility. This way you are less likely to put other at risk of infection.