Six Degrees of Separation

There’s a running joke in Hollywood that there are only ever six degrees of separation from any actor to Kevin Bacon. If you’re a real movie buff you can play the game with your friends and try to figure it out.

The Kevin Bacon game works pretty much with any actor, as it’s based on the idea that there are only six degrees of separation from any one person to another on the planet. It got me to thinking…

I find that a lot of my emetophobia clients worry extensively (some much more than others) about the degrees of separation of Norovirus (aka “stomach flu” or “stomach bug”)[1]. What I mean by this is they’re afraid that someone with Norovirus touched this, then that, then what if I touch this, then, that – is “that” contaminated with Norovirus? Here’s an example of what I mean:

  1. Bob has Norovirus
  2. Bob doesn’t wash his hands after using the bathroom. There are Norovirus particles on his hands
  3. Bob opens the door
  4. Bob picks up his keys
  5. Bob opens his car door
  6. Bob drives to the grocery store
  7. Bob gets a grocery cart
  8. Bob grabs a box of granola bars, reads the label, then puts it back.
  9. A few moments later I grab the granola bars and put them in my cart. I buy them and they get put in a bag
  10. I touch the bag handles
  11. I touch my purse handles and keys
  12. I eat a burger without washing my hands
  13. I will get Norovirus.

I now believe that I must wash my hands, my purse handles, and wipe everything item of my groceries or I will catch Norovirus.

Here’s the thing: you won’t. Norovirus is very contagious, true, but what we have here are TWELVE degrees of separation from the Norovirus particles and you. That’s way too many for the virus to still be active. Here’s what can happen at the grocery store:

  1. A kid has Norovirus
  2. The kid doesn’t wash his hands after using the bathroom.
  3. He touches nothing until the grocery cart handle.
  4. You use the cart next and touch the handle.
  5. You put your fingers in your mouth or eat a burger.
  6. You get Norovirus

That’s six, right? So yes – you could get Norovirus this way. But NOT IF THERE ARE ANY MORE THAN SIX. Because I’m actually talking about one item touched by the kid, touched by you (the grocery cart), and I’m also talking about invisible Norovirus particles, not visible poo. Ew. Sorry for that. This is why there are wipes in grocery stores now, for your cart handles.

Here are the items you don’t want to touch, then put your hand in your mouth:

  1. Anything in someone else’s bathroom, or yours if someone in your house has Norovirus: toilet flusher, taps, soap dispenser, paper towel dispenser, countertops, cups, toothbrushes, toiletries or makeup, door handles.
  2. Doorknobs
  3. Other people’s phones (your phone is fine)
  4. Light switches (especially in bathrooms)
  5. Elevator buttons
  6. Gas pumps
  7. Other people’s hands

 For all you emetophobia folks out there, let’s review how you might catch Norovirus:

  1. Someone with Norovirus throws up within ten feet of you. That’s about the radius that the aerosolized particles can travel, although it’s more like seven feet to the side. (Now you know why it’s so contagious in schools.)
  2. Diarrhea in a toilet can become aerosolized when the toilet is flushed. It can land on toothbrushes across a room.
  3. Someone in the food production business doesn’t wash hands and touches your salad or hamburger bun.
  4. You touch something from the list, above, don’t wash your hands, then put your hands in your mouth. You could theoretically catch it from putting your finger in your nose, but it’s highly unlikely, and even more unlikely you’d catch it from touching your eye. Zero chance from touching your face.

There is more information on the Norovirus page of my website including myths about how it is caught. The truth is, most Norovirus is spread by children. They suck at handwashing. Apparently so do caregivers in nursing homes.

The good news is that it’s really easy to get the virus off your hands – you just wash them with plain soap and water. Emetophobia folks will tell you about all the things that kill Norovirus, but if you wash your hands before putting them in your mouth you really don’t need to worry.


[1] Noroviruses are neither a “flu” nor a “bug” – those are just sayings.

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AnnaSChristie

B.A., M.Div., RCC (Registered Clinical Counsellor) I specialize in the treatment of emetophobia.