The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that noroviruses cause nearly 21 million cases of acute gastroenteritis annually, making noroviruses the leading cause of gastroenteritis in adults in the United States.
Humans are the only host of norovirus, and norovirus has several mechanisms that allow it to spread quickly and easily. Norovirus causes nearly 60% of all foodborne illness outbreaks. Norovirus is transmitted primarily through the fecal-oral route, with fewer than 100 norovirus particles needed to cause infection. Transmission occurs either person-to-person or through contamination of food or water. CDC statistics show that food is the most common vehicle of transmission for noroviruses; of 232 outbreaks of norovirus between July 1997 and June 2000, 57% were foodborne, 16% were spread from person-to-person, and 3% were waterborne. When food is the vehicle of transmission, contamination occurs most often through a food handler improperly handling a food directly before it is eaten.
Norovirus illness usually develops 24 to 48 hours after ingestion of contaminated food or water. Symptoms typically last a relatively short amount of time, approximately 24 to 48 hours. These symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain. Headache and low-grade fever may also accompany this illness. People infected with norovirus usually recover in two to three days without serious or long-term health effects.
Although symptoms usually only last one to two days in healthy individuals, norovirus infection can become quite serious in children, the elderly, and immune-compromised individuals. In some cases, severe dehydration, malnutrition, and even death can result from norovirus infection, especially among children and among older and immune-compromised adults in hospitals and nursing homes. In England and Wales, 20% of those over the age of 65 die due to infectious intestinal illness other than Clostridium difficile. Recently, there have been reports of some long-term effects associated with norovirus, including necrotizing entercolitis, chronic diarrhea, and post-infectious irritable bowel syndrome, but more data is needed to support these claims.