Norovirus in the Elderly
Norovirus is an infection that enters the body through the mouth and causes swelling in the intestines and stomach. The medical term is gastroenteritis.
The virus can be caught from:
- A person who is sick with norovirus.
- Food or water that holds the virus.
- Surfaces that have been touched by contaminated food and water or a sick person.
Norovirus starts with one person falling ill and then moves quickly through community gatherings, cruise ships, daycares, families, nursing homes and schools. Wherever there is a group of people eating together, norovirus likes to show up as an uninvited guest.
For many people, norovirus means a day or two of diarrhea, nausea, stomach pain and vomiting before returning to normal life. For the elderly, however, norovirus can be much more severe resulting in declining health and hospitalization.
Once norovirus has entered the body, symptoms will usually appear within 48 hours.
For the next one to two days, people will typically experience diarrhea, nausea and vomiting. In adults and the elderly, vomiting is the most common symptom. However, people may also experience abdominal cramping and pain, body aches, low fever or a headache.
Norovirus is particularly nasty for the elderly, leading to severe dehydration, an increase in falls and in extreme cases, death.
For the elderly, it is not “just a stomach bug.” The symptoms need to be taken seriously as they can lead to:
- Chronic diarrhea and malnutrition
- Heart failure
- Kidney problems
- Severe disease of the intestines
It’s important to keep in mind that older adults who are living in places with shared eating facilities and rooms may be more at risk for picking up norovirus.
Once norovirus has entered the body of an elderly parent or loved one, they can quickly become dehydrated from vomiting. The stomach bug can also lead to a senior loved one becoming malnourished.
Preventing Norovirus in the Elderly
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), 90% of cases of norovirus are spread from person to person. The best way to avoid this virus is to avoid people who are sick with it, though that’s easier said than done, as the virus can be carried by people who don’t show symptoms or who are not yet sick.
If you are caring for an elderly loved one who is ill, make sure that you are being careful to not spread the virus. Here’s how:
1. Clean all the surfaces.
If your parent or senior loved one is sick at home, clean and disinfect all surfaces that are frequently touched. Computers, counters, dishes, doors, doorknobs and phones.
2. Don’t forget to wash any clothing and bed linens that are in contact with the person who is sick.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), norovirus is most commonly found in the feces and vomit of infected people. As disgusting as that sounds, think of the ways you might be in contact with those bodily fluids. Cleaning with soap and water will often be enough to remove the virus.
3. Stay home when you are sick.
If you care for an elderly loved one, have a backup caregiver arranged in case you are ill. What may be a mild illness for you can be more serious for your senior parent.
4. Wash your hands with soap and water.
Make sure that you are washing your hands every time you are with your older loved one to prevent illness and infection. Try to encourage your family and friends to also make it a regular habit to wash their hands. Remember to check that your parent or senior loved one has easy access to a sink and soap, as well as a clean paper towel to dry. If your loved one is in a wheelchair, the height of the sink should be easy to reach for them.
Ways to Treat Norovirus
Despite your best efforts, your elderly loved one may still become sick with norovirus. If that occurs, the U.S. National Library of Medicine reports that there are no specific medications to take that will treat the virus, so your best defense is to keep your loved one hydrated.
Your older loved one will need plenty of rest and regular liquids and the CDC recommends that you get an oral rehydration drink for them from the pharmacy. These drinks can help to replace the minerals and nutrients that are lost from frequent vomiting.
Monitor your loved one for signs of dehydration during this time and seek medical help if you notice:
- Difficulty walking
- Dry mouth and skin
- No tears
- Rapid heartbeat and shallow breathing
- Sunken eyes
The bad news is that you might also come down with Norovirus while caring for a parent or senior loved one. The good news is that you can help to prevent the spread by staying home when you are sick and through careful cleaning and washing.