LOS ANGELES, Dec. 25 (UPI) -- A significant uptick in "winter vomiting disease," or norovirus, has California Department of Public Health officials scrambling to alert the public about the highly contagious infection.
There have been 32 cases reported since the beginning of October -- a significant increase over the nine norovirus cases reported around the same time last year.
The highly contagious virus spreads easily from person to person, either through direct contact, consuming contaminated food or drinks, or touching contaminated surfaces. Norovirus can be spread especially quickly in crowded places such as schools, nursing homes, cruise ships and restaurants, with patients remaining sick for up to two weeks after symptoms stop.
Nationally, there are between 19 and 21 million cases of norovirus each year, about 2 million of which result in visits to the hospital, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The 600 to 800 people who die as a result of norovirus are mostly young children and the elderly.
In addition to the California outbreaks, one in Boston that started at a Chipotle sickened at least 120 people. Several of the California outbreaks have also been linked to restaurants in the state, the Los Angeles Times reported.
"One of the most important things you can do to avoid norovirus and other illnesses this holiday season is to wash your hands frequently with soap and running water for at least 20 seconds," Dr. Karen Smith, director of the California Department of Public Health, said in a press release. "This is especially important after using the bathroom, changing diapers, and before preparing or eating food. Hand sanitizers are not effective against norovirus."
Symptoms of infection generally start 12 to 48 hours after exposure to the virus and last for one to three days, though people are contagious much longer than that. The most common symptoms include vomiting, nausea, diarrhea and stomach cramps, though they can also include a low-grade fever, headache and body aches. The symptoms can be dangerous for young children, the elderly and people who already are sick because of the potential for dehydration.
Health officials recommend thoroughly washing hands after every bathroom visit, cleaning and cooking all food carefully, and cleaning and disinfecting food preparation areas thoroughly.