A new study reveals just how quickly the "stomach flu" can spread from surface to surface.
Elevator button

When a stomach flu starts circulating through the office, everyone is on edge, ready to do anything to avoid its hallmark symptoms: nausea, diarrhea, stomach cramps, fever, and muscle pain. According to the CDC, norovirus is the most common form of the “stomach flu,” and aside from being extremely uncomfortable, it contributes to 71,000 hospitalizations every year. People often contract it by eating contaminated food or by touching a contaminated surface and then touching their mouths.

But exactly how fast can a surface become contaminated? Here’s a spoiler alert: really fast. Researchers at the University of Arizona simulated norovirus in an attempt to see just how quickly it actually spreads, and presented their findings at this week’s Interscience Conference on Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy.

They used the imitation virus to contaminate one commonly touched surface, like a doorknob, at the beginning of the day in office buildings and a healthcare facility. After several hours, they sampled 60 to 100 “fomites,” or surfaces capable of carrying the virus. Often, these areas are unavoidable—door knobs, light switches, push buttons on the elevator, or sink tap handles, for instance. Fomites even include coffee pot handles—how can you avoid those on a Monday morning? The researchers found that within two to four hours, between 40 to 60 percent of the surfaces sampled were contaminated with the simulated virus. Basically, the virus had made its office rounds before lunchtime.

Thankfully, the study didn’t end there. A follow-up experiment revealed a simple solution to stopping the virus: Disinfectant wipes, along with good old-fashioned hand hygiene, reduced the spread of viruses like norovirus and the flu by 80 to 99 percent. So move those to the top of your shopping list, and keep a few extra boxes at your desk.

For more ways to stay healthy at work, try these cubicle hacks.