On the first day of my vacation last week, I had just finished covering myself in sunscreen when I felt my knees go weak. I ran for the bathroom, where my body cleared itself of its contents with the fury of a surface-to-air missile. Almost as suddenly, my back and legs started feeling like they had been pounded with meat mallets. I crawled into bed, and there I stayed for the next 24 hours.
If I had, at that point, possessed enough strength to shake my fist at the heavens, I would have done so and said, “Damn you, norovirus!”
Norovirus is a highly contagious bug that’s the most common cause of what we call “stomach flu,” or gastroenteritis. Most people get norovirus from restaurants, usually from a sick employee or from contaminated raw food, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s no wonder it has ripped its way through cruise ships in a matter of days: It can take as few as 18 particles of norovirus to make you sick, and the stuff can live on silverware and countertops for weeks.
A team of scientists in North Carolina had been wondering whether there’s yet another, more covert, way for norovirus to spread: Through the air. When someone retches—as they so often do with norovirus—does the virus hang in the air and infect others?