With the recent Norovirus outbreak across the country, if you haven’t been bowing to the porcelain throne yourself, you likely know someone who has.
It’s the viral infection known mainly by its common name, “the stomach flu.” Vomiting and diarrhea are the chief symptoms, and while no one wants to talk about the former (for fear of triggering a further outbreak via social cue) there are some interesting things we can learn about this peculiar physiologic response to the infection.
Three Stages. Nausea is the first stage of the cycle. Then, the retching stage. This involves a series of coordinated contractions of abdominal and respiratory muscles, including the powerful diaphragm. This forces you to take a few deep breaths (which also may help avoid aspirating what’s about to come up). As the body prepares itself, the mouth begins to salivate to protect the tooth enamel from the soon coming acidic flow. Back in the stomach, the valve at the bottom starts to relax, allowing contents from the small intestine to gurgle up, but not yet out. The third and final stage is aptly named expulsion. Here the pressure changes created by the previous synchronized muscle contractions begin a vigorous and sustained contraction. That extreme pressure is suddenly released by opening the valve at the top of the stomach, resulting in … well, expulsion.
Does vomiting spread the infection? If the act of vomiting is not now clear enough, scientists have recently developed a simulation model to further study the expulsion stage. With “Larry the Vomiting Robot,” we’ve learned that the act of vomiting likely doesn’t dramatically spread the virus. While Larry’s slow-motion video has gone viral (click on the link if you’ve got the stomach for it), he’s taught us that the Norovirus is spread more often by how the virus sheds out of the body, often 12 to 24 hours before the individual has any symptoms. The key to reducing the spread of infection? Hand washing and common-sense hygiene.
Awakened revelations. Most people agree that there is a welcome sense of cleansing immediately after an episode of vomiting, and some indigenous tribes of the Amazon have made it their religion. Native Peruvians will ingest a concoction of leaves and herbs called ayahuasca to achieve a heightened sense of spiritual awakening and insight. While there are significant psychotropic reactions associated with the ayahuasca mixture, vomiting almost always follows ingestion and is an essential part of the experience, representing the release of negative energy and emotions. Next time you’re afflicted with the stomach flu, maybe you’ll have an epiphany of your own in those peaceful moments that follow the worst part of the flu.