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'Stomach flu' invades Minnesota; officials urge people to wash hands frequently

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It's been called one of the worst influenza seasons in Minnesota in years, and health officials are saying outbreaks of norovirus have also been hitting Minnesotans especially hard.

Approximately 40 norovirus outbreaks have been reported to the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) since the beginning of November, the health department announced Monday. These outbreaks have occurred at restaurants, schools, nursing homes and private gatherings.

It's commonly referred to as the "stomach flu." Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, body aches, a general run-down feeling and a mild fever, MDH notes.

Norovirus is "very contagious" – about 20 million people get sick from the virus annually, most from close contact with an infected person or from food prepared by someone who has the virus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.

Norovirus is actually the most common food-related illness in Minnesota and cases tend to peak during the winter months, MDH said.

Dr. Kirk Smith, who heads the Foodborne Diseases Unit at the state department of health, says washing your hands thoroughly after using the bathroom, before consuming food and before preparing food could prevent a majority of illnesses.

Smith says it's important to avoid preparing food commercially or for others while sick and for at least 72 hours after symptoms subside.

People typically get sick 24 to 48 hours after being exposed to the virus and symptoms can last from one to three days. But people can continue to spread the virus for several days after feeling better.

Worst influenza outbreak in years

Norovirus or the stomach flu is not the same as influenza, which is primarily a respiratory illness.

This has been one of the worst years for influenza in Minnesota in at least the last four years, WCCO reports.

Since the start of the influenza season, two people under the age of 18 have died from the virus, MDH said last week, and the number of Minnesota schools reporting influenza outbreaks jumped from 19 to 203 in a week, causing some districts to cancel school before winter vacation.

A spokesman for Mayo Clinic told the Star Tribune they’ve already seen more flu patients than they did in the entire flu season a year ago.

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