How to avoid the winter bugs and blues in Summit County through the shortest days of the year |

How to avoid the winter bugs and blues in Summit County through the shortest days of the year

A simulated closeup of the norovirus. Norovirus is the most common cause of vomiting, diarrhea and foodborne illness, and outbreaks have hit the Western Slope.
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December has made its frosty arrival. As the mercury plummets, Summit County residents will be spending more and more of their time indoors, often huddled around other people shut in from the freezing flakes and bruising winds outside. 

That’s when seasonal health troubles start ramping up. Sniffles, coughs and sneezing leads to spread of the flu and other nasty illnesses, along with seasonal depression brought on by shorter days and less sunlight. 

To stay healthy and free of illnesses that spread like winter wildfire, it’s important to keep apprised of the most prevalent bugs spreading around, along with taking steps to ensure personal wellness and bolstering the body against physical and mental breakdown.

The illness causing the most consternation on the Western Slope at the moment is an apparent variation of the norovirus, also known as the “winter vomiting bug” and often referred to as stomach flu (which is not related to “the flu,” influenza). 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers norovirus to be the most common cause of vomiting, diarrhea and foodborne illness. The disease is one of the most contagious common illnesses known, with a single infected host spreading billions of virus particles around them. 

It only takes a few of those particles to infect another person. CDC figures estimate that there are as many as 71,000 cases of norovirus in the U.S. each year, with as many as 800 deaths.

An apparent outbreak of the virus caused the closure of all 46 schools in Mesa County Valley School District 51 earlier this month, later spreading to Garfield County and then shutting down schools in the West Grand School District, where dozens of northern Summit County kids attend school. Summit County has not recorded a norovirus outbreak yet.

While the virus runs its course in only a few days, it is very unpleasant and can knock even the healthiest people out of commission for a while. The contagiousness of the disease makes it hard to avoid if a local outbreak occurs. 

Best practices to prevent contracting and spreading the disease include thoroughly washing hands throughout the day, wiping down potentially contaminated surfaces, proper handling and preparation of food and hot, thorough washing of infected clothing.

The good news is that the actual flu, influenza, has been surprisingly limited despite dire predictions of particularly nasty season. The CDC national weekly flu monitor has flu activity in Colorado at “low,” with the state public health department counting 112 hospitalizations across Colorado this season. Suspected infections at outpatient clinics and emergency rooms are below baseline levels.

Best practices for spreading the flu are much the same as that for norovirus spread, including proper hygiene practices. The severity and suddenness of the flu requires vigilance, and those who suspect onset of the flu should rest and practice common courtesy by avoiding contact with others. 

Finally, wintering residents should make efforts to take care of their mind along with their body. The winter solstice arrives on December 21, the shortest day of the year with the sun setting at 4:44 p.m. in Summit and offering barely nine hours of sunlight. The shorter days of winter can commonly lead to “seasonal affective disorder,” which the National Institute of Mental Health estimates can affect between 1% to 9% of state populations across the U.S., increasing in prevalence the farther north of the equator you go.

SAD is a mood disorder in the winter characterized by depression, low energy and can often be accompanied by unexplained physical malaise and thoughts of self-harm. Though no definitive cause has been established for SAD, the biological causes include abnormal regulation of the neurotransmitters serotonin and melatonin, as well as deficiency of Vitamin D. All have been linked to lack of exposure to sunlight.

Physical adjustments needed to avoid SAD include waking up earlier in the day and getting outside to get as much daily sunlight exposure as possible, as well as the use of a sun lamp to simulate sunlight that can artificially regulate neurotransmitter and hormone production. Proper hydration is also important in the mountains year-round.

As with depression and a variety of other mood disorders, mental health treatment for SAD can include working out, outdoor activity and physical activity in general, socializing more with friends and seeking professional help from a counselor.

If you are experiencing thoughts or ideation of self-harm, help is available 24/7. Contact Colorado Crisis Services by calling 1-844-493-TALK (8255), or text TALK to 38255, or access CCS via chat chat by visiting

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