Michael F. Easley
Governor

The Great Seal of the State of North Carolina Carmen Hooker Odom
Secretary

North Carolina
Department of Health and Human Services

For Release: IMMEDIATE
Date: February 15, 2007

  Contact: Debbie Crane

State Epidemiologist: Washing Hands Key to Preventing “Stomach Flu”

RALEIGH – State Epidemiologist Dr. Jeffrey Engel today said that there continue to be outbreaks of viral gastroenteritis, also known as “stomach flu,” across the state. He urged everyone to be vigilant to help prevent the illness.

“We’ve heard of numerous outbreaks across the state in the past couple of weeks,” said Dr. Engel. “While you can never totally prevent spread of an illness, you can certainly limit infection by taking proper precautions. In this instance, our best advice is: wash your hands, wash your hands, wash your hands.”

Dr. Engel says that people should frequently wash their hands, especially after toilet visits and changing diapers and before preparing food. “Use soap and warm water, because research shows that the alcohol-based hand sanitizers may not be all that effective against the virus causing stomach flu,” he said.

In addition to washing hands, there are other precautions to prevent spread of the disease:

  • Thoroughly clean and disinfect contaminated surfaces immediately after an episode of illness by using a bleach-based household cleaner (dilute household bleach 1:10 in water, never use concentrated bleach).
  • Immediately remove and wash clothing or linens that may be contaminated with virus after an episode of illness (use hot water and soap).
  • Flush or discard any vomit and/or stool in the toilet and make sure that the surrounding area is kept clean.
  • Carefully wash fruits and vegetables, and steam oysters before eating them.

The main symptoms of viral gastroenteritis are watery diarrhea and vomiting. Sick people may also have headache, fever, and abdominal cramps ("stomach ache"). In general, the symptoms begin 1 to 2 days following infection with a virus that causes gastroenteritis and may last for 1 to 10 days, depending on which virus causes the illness. The current outbreak illness in North Carolina is lasting 1 to 2 days. Although viral gastroenteritis is often commonly called “stomach flu,” it has no relationship to the influenza virus, which is a respiratory disease.

“In general, this illness doesn’t cause serious long-term consequences in most healthy people,” Dr. Engel said. “You feel really awful for a couple of days and need to stay near a bathroom, but you get over it. It can be a serious illness for people who are unable to drink enough fluids to replace what they lose through vomiting or diarrhea.”

Infants, young children, and people who are unable to care for themselves, such as the disabled or elderly, are at risk for dehydration from loss of fluids. Immune compromised persons are at risk for dehydration because they may get a more serious illness, with greater vomiting or diarrhea. They may need to be hospitalized for treatment to correct or prevent dehydration.

Several of the outbreaks have been caused by noroviruses, but viral gastroenteritis can be caused by other viruses as well. Because viral gastroenteritis is relatively common and usually not serious, the state doesn’t require reporting of the disease. But, if local health care or local health department employees need assistance in handling an outbreak, they may consult with the experts from the N.C. Division of Public Health.

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Public Affairs Office
101 Blair Drive, Raleigh, NC 27603
(919)733-9190
FAX (919)733-7447

Debbie Crane
Director