Wintertime vomiting disease strikes Seattle

Jan 6, 2012

Don’t be surprised if you notice a few co-workers are out sick, or if a stomach bug seems to be hitting your family. Winter is peak time for sharing germs – and right now, at least, most of those are NOT the flu bug.

For Lisa Steinbrueck of Seattle, it seemed at first like food poisoning:

"I was feeling fine, went to bed, and around two o'clock in the morning I started feeling kind of nauseous, got up and had to go vomit, and also had diarhea.  And that went on all night long, pretty much every hour or so. It was pretty bad."

This was over Christmas.  She thought, it must be some sort of stomach flu.

Not the flu yet

In truth, there are a lot of possible suspects – viruses that seem to prosper in wintertime. Jeff Duchin, chief of communicable diseases for Public Health Seattle & King County says influenza is actually not present yet.  What’s more common right now is the norovirus.  King County had just one reported outbreak of norovirus in November ... and then 14 in December. Duchin says that increase is typical:

"Norovirus is sometimes referred to as 'wintertime vomiting disease,' and it spreads so readily in any place where people have close contact."

It mercilessly attacks your entire intestinal system, leading to both vomiting and diarrhea.

It lives in a lot of places

The symptoms typically last two or three days.  But the victim stays contagious for another few days – and the norovirus is one that can live happily on tables, doorknobs, or any surface for a long time.

"This is the way organisms move around – from hand to hand, hand to object, object back to hand, touching things and then picking up food."

There’s still another batch of viruses (such as the coronavirus) that also thrive in winter – infecting the sinuses and lungs. Those often spread through coughing. 

Why viruses love winter

Nobody knows why viruses flare up in winter.

"There are no real good solid explanations for that. There are theories," says Duchin.

One hypothesis focuses on the role of temperature and how some microorganisms thrive in low humidity, and another looks at the fact that we’re all congregating more indoors, where we have closer contact.

Recent research on influenza found that particular virus forms a protective envelope during cold seasons, which helps it spread from person to person.

In any case, hand-washing is a great preventive.