February 19, 2007

Gastroenteritis Affects Ithaca

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It happens suddenly. At 4 or 5 p.m., you feel fine. By 7 p.m., you are lying immobile on your bed, with your stomach threatening to expel anything you have eaten in the past few hours.

If this scenario sounds familiar to you, you may be one of many members of Tompkins County and Cornell communities to have contracted viral gastroenteritis, which, according to a recent release from Gannett Health Services, is an “inflammation of the stomach and small and large intestines … caused by a variety of viruses that results in vomiting or diarrhea or both.”

According to Sharon Dittman, associate director for community relations and health promotion coordinator at Gannett, viral gastroenteritis is a Norwalk virus, or norovirus, “a family of viruses that cause these pretty extreme gastrointestinal viruses.”

Though neither Gannett nor the Tompkins County Health Department could offer estimates of how many have been afflicted with the virus, the communities they serve have taken a hard hit from gastroenteritis.

“We’ve heard that the Lansing school district had bouts of it last week,” Theresa Lyczko, director of the Health Promotion Program at the Tompkins County Health Department said. “In fact, they closed the school for a day.”

The virus spreads rapidly through schools, colleges and nursing homes. According to Lycsko, one can contract the virus by eating or drinking contaminated foods and liquids, touching a contaminated surface or through personal contact with someone who is still contagious. Ultimately, the best prevention against gastroenteritis is to wash your hands frequently.

“When you’re out and about all day, the only time you stop and think about washing your hands is when you’re in the bathroom,” said Dittman.

Rather, students should be careful to wash their hands throughout the day.

Victims of gastroenteritis can prevent spread of the virus by refraining from contact with others at least twenty-four hours after they have symptoms. However, according to Lyczco, one may remain contagious up to three days after his or her symptoms have disappeared.

The symptoms of gastroenteritis appear suddenly. According to Lyczko, a victim may experience nausea and diarrhea as early as twelve hours after exposure to the virus.

“It’s a quick onset kind of thing,” said Dittman.

Though the symptoms are uncomfortable, the greatest threat of gastroenteritis is the danger of dehydration. According to Dittman, dehydration can potentially throw off electrolyte balance and, in more extreme cases, cause heart problems.

“The problem … is dehydration more than anything,” Lyczko said.

Unfortunately, because nausea is one of the primary symptoms of the virus, one may be unable to digest even the smallest quantities of liquids without the threat of vomiting. According to Dittman, one should wait until he or she has not vomited for two hours and then try to digest one to two tablespoons of liquid every fifteen to twenty minutes.

Though the symptoms of gastroenteritis may seem extreme to a victim, Dittman urged Cornell students to turn to the Gannett Health Line before going to a hospital, where there may be up to a two-hour wait.

“We have 24-hour nurses on phone. … Then the nurse can ask other questions,” Dittman said. “In those situations, what we want to do is have medical personnel assess the variety of symptoms. In general, what we’re asking people to do is call and consult.”

Not only do these nurses offer suggestions, they determine whether a student’s symptoms indicate a more extreme malady. Because the immune system is trying to fight gastroenteritis, the victim becomes more vulnerable to a range of viruses and bacteria, such as strep throat or meningitis.

“Don’t be surprised if you get it, but if you get something a little different it may be a little different,” Dittman said. “There might be another treatment for it.”

Even if a student does not fall victim to dehydration or a more serious condition while sick, gastroenteritis is never a pleasant experience. Fortunately, the most extreme symptoms last only 24 to 60 hours.

“I had [gastroenteritis] a couple weeks ago,” said David Marshak. “Let’s just say it wasn’t my best 24 hours, but at least it was only 24 hours.”