Friends, if you’ve managed so far to avoid catching the particularly nasty strain of norovirus that’s going around this winter, I salute you. Sincerely. Norovirus — also known as winter vomiting virus or plain old stomach flu — is going around with a vengeance and it has health workers and parents struggling to keep up. Not only does the bug pass quickly through unsuspecting classrooms, it takes the cleaning equivalent of dynamite to get rid of it. Ok, that last part might have been an exaggeration, but not by much. But it turns out the one thing that most parents keep in their germ-fighting arsenal is of zero use when it comes to stopping the stomach flu. Why won’t most hand sanitizers kill norovirus? Because norovirus is the absolute worst, that’s why.
Here’s the thing about norovirus: it’s spread by coming in contact with fecal matter. That means it spreads in laundry, in food touched by poorly washed hands, and even in the air when a toilet is flushed. It also means that proper hand washing is the most effective means of staying healthy, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The problem is that most people don’t wash their hands well enough to kill norovirus.
So, it would seem that using a strong, alcohol-based hand sanitizer might offer an extra bit of insurance, right? Especially for those of us with little ones still learning how to properly scrub their hands. Not this time.
Traditional hand sanitizer doesn’t work on norovirus because of the bug’s unique structure, according to an NBC News report. Each particle is surrounded by a protein-based shell called a capsid. The capsid helps the virus stay alive on surfaces and avoid getting dried out. It also forms a protective layer that alcohol just can’t get through.
"It's resistant to many common disinfectants,” said Dr. Aron Hall, CDC’s norovirus expert, in an interview with NBC. “It can persist on surfaces for several days, even at room temperature.” So, when cleaning after sick people in a school or home, it’s important to use cleansers strong enough to do more than just wipe the particles away. To kill norovirus — and avoid accidentally infecting others days or even weeks down the line — requires a stronger agent like bleach or hydrogen peroxide, according to that report. There are a few types of hand sanitizer that kill norovirus, and they have an anti-microbial called benzethonium chloride in them.
Still, the CDC’s best advice for handwashing to avoid norovirus is simple: use regular soap and hot water, but do it for at least 30 seconds, scrub hard, and be sure to get under those nails. Diligence is important because even a few particles of norovirus can lead to a full-blown case of vomiting.
I said it from the beginning: norovirus is the absolute worst. Stay healthy, friends.