Monday, February 18, 2013

Hand Sanitizers vs Norovirus

People in densely populated living situations, like cruise ships and skilled nursing facilities, are reaching for the alcohol-based hand sanitizing gel in hopes of avoiding the norovirus.  But does it prevent infection from the gastrointestinal bug?  It looks like the answer is “No.”

Many studies have shown that alcohol-based sanitizers reduce germ counts on hands and can reduce the spread of some strains of flu.  But the nasty norovirus that causes vomiting and diarrhea is resistant.

Some viruses, including the flu virus, have a coating that the alcohol in the sanitizer can burst open, killing the virus.  But the norovirus doesn’t have a capsule that alcohol can penetrate.  So it lives on even when you believe your hands are disinfected.  Noroviruses are so infectious that as little as 10 missed microscopic particles can cause infection.

Bleach kills the norovirus, and a solution of 10% bleach is great for wiping down counters and surfaces that may have been contaminated.  But since we really can’t wash our hands in bleach, experts say we should wash hands frequently with plain old soap and water.

In 2011 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention studied records from the winter of 2006-07 in 91 long-term care facilities; they found 23 outbreaks of the norovirus.  Facilities where staff regularly cleaned their hands with alcohol-based sanitizers had six times as many norovirus outbreaks than facilities where the staff used soap and water. 

The CDC says that to prevent the spread of the norovirus, alcohol sanitizers should only be used “in addition” to hand washing, but not as a substitute.

This article was originally published in Pathways & Partners Newsletter - Issue 27.  To download this issue in PDF format, or past issues, visit our newsletter archives online at

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