Reusable Shopping Bags Can Spread Stomach Flu Bug, Study Suggests

Steering clear of someone with a stomach bug doesn't mean you can't catch it. Norovirus, the bug responsible for the stomach flu, can be spread by inanimate objects, namely, reusable grocery bags, according to a new study.

Oregon researchers investigated a recent outbreak of the bug among 17 members of a girls' soccer team and their four adult chaperones while attending a tournament in Washington state. One member of the team, presumably exposed to the virus before the tournament, began vomiting and experiencing diarrhea in a chaperone's bathroom, who quickly took her home and later became sick herself.

Seven other players and chaperones fell ill afterwards, although none had come in direct contact with the original patient after she first displayed symptoms. The common link? A reusable grocery bag of snacks that had been stored in the bathroom, according to the study, published today in the Journal of Infectious Diseases.

Kimberly K. Repp, Ph.D., an epidemiologist at Oregon Health and Sciences University, told WebMD that, via an 800-question survey administered to the girls and their chaperones, she and colleague William E. Keene, Ph.D., M.P.H., of the Oregon Public Health Division in Portland, discovered that all of the sick people had eaten the same cookies. "It was something about the cookies, we knew, that was associated with the source of the outbreak," Repp said.

So how did the highly-contagious bug get to the cookies? Particles from vomit and feces can become airborne, land on bags or other inanimate objects and survive there for weeks, NPR explained, which is likely how it recently wreaked havoc on cruise ships and even infiltrated NBA locker rooms.

While researchers have long assumed this to be true, the small study is "the first-ever reported case of transmitting this virus with an inanimate object," Repp told WebMD.

There's no doubt they are a more eco-friendly choice than plastic, but reusable grocery bags have a shaky health history. In 2010, a study found that over half are contaminated with bacteria, some even with E. coli, because 97 percent of shoppers say they never wash their totes.

Throwing away any food that has been around someone with the norovirus is an important step toward staying healthy, but properly cleaning the environment is crucial, too. "While we certainly recommend not storing food in bathrooms," the authors noted in a statement, "it is more important to emphasize that areas where aerosol exposures may have occurred should be thoroughly disinfected; this includes not only exposed surfaces, but also objects in the environment."

To do so, wash reusable bags like you would sheets and towels, CNN reports. Warm water works, as does a mild bleach and water mixture. Make sure to clean counters and cabinets where you place or store the bags, too.

And don't forget about some of the other sneaky places germs can be lurking. Check out the slideshow below for more germ traps to clean today.

Germ Traps To Clean