A nasty stomach bug will stop you in your tracks. If you’ve temporarily taken up residence in a bathroom, you’ve fought the foes of vomiting and diarrhea. An inflamed stomach and intestines, called “acute gastroenteritis,” will also bring belly cramping, fatigue, and muscle aches, according to Derek Bennetsen, DO, FAAEM, senior medical director of Teladoc Health.
Norovirus is the leading cause of this inflammation, which hits 19 to 21 million of us every year.1 The illness leads about 1.9 million people—many of them young children—to seek doctors’ visits, and 400,000 sufferers land in the ER with their sickening symptoms.1
Norovirus can cause a persistent and brutal illness. Find out facts about what causes it, how to prevent it, and ways to treat it so you can stay healthy this season.
1. Norovirus is highly contagious.
The virus enters the mouth and can be transmitted in a number of ways. “Norovirus is spread through direct contact with someone who is currently infected with the virus, or by consumption of contaminated food and water,” Dr. Bennetsen explains.
So if you’re caring for someone who is sick, be especially diligent about hand-washing if you’re in contact with bodily fluids. If you touch a person or object that has been contaminated with the virus and then touch your mouth or lips, you could get sick. You could also get it by sharing foods or drink with an ill person, or by eating food that has been contaminated during preparation.
2. Outbreaks can happen anywhere.
You always hear about norovirus outbreaks on cruise ships, but they can really happen anywhere people gather indoors. “Norovirus is highly contagious, seen most often in the winter months when people are spending more time inside in close quarters, causing rapid spread from person to person,” explains Dr. Bennetsen.
So whether you’re touching handrails, dining tables or utensils, elevator buttons, or door handles, these surfaces may be covered with germs—including droplets containing the norovirus. Half of all norovirus outbreaks reported in the U.S. occur in long-term care facilities,2 and are also common in hospitals. Similarly, outbreaks are common in schools, daycare centers, and colleges where tight, shared spaces can help spread sickness.
3. Foods can carry the virus.
About 50 percent of all outbreaks of food-related illness are caused by norovirus.2 Restaurant workers who prepare or handle food and have the virus on their hands can spread it easily. By touching raw foods like fruits and vegetables or cooked foods ready for serving, they can contaminate your meal.
Foods can also be contaminated at the source, such as the farm for produce or oysters in unclean water. “Poorly prepared shellfish is the most likely food source leading to infection,” Dr. Bennetsen says. Noroviruses can survive high temperatures, so quick steaming is not effective to prevent its spread.
When you’re sick, you should not prepare or handle food for others. Also keep ill children away from food, throwing out anything that could be affected. Always wash fruits and vegetables, like lettuce, before taking that first bite!
4. Norovirus is not related to the flu.
You may hear the term “food poisoning” or “stomach flu” for the norovirus, but it is neither of these. It can cause a form of food poisoning, but so can other things. And it’s not related to the flu, which is a respiratory illness.
The confusion comes in because the norovirus and flu share some of the same symptoms, like vomiting, fatigue, and achiness. But the norovirus, or winter vomiting bug, mainly affects the stomach.
5. Hand hygiene is key to staying healthy.
Since this virus spreads so easily, it’s important to wash hands well and often, especially before eating or touching your mouth. “Hand-washing with soap and water is the most effective means of reducing the spread of the illness,” says Dr. Bennetsen. “Alcohol hand gels can be used, but are less effective at reducing transmission,” he adds.
Wash your hands with hot water for 30 seconds after being in public places where viruses thrive. Norovirus can be found in both vomit and poop before you have symptoms of sickness, and even two weeks after you feel better.3 So always clean your hands after using the bathroom.
6. Don’t just clean your hands…clean it all.
It’s important to clean and disinfect surfaces around your house or work—especially those that are frequently touched or used for eating. Unfortunately, this virus is stronger than many common cleansers: You’ll need to use a 5 percent (or stronger) bleach solution to disinfect contaminated surfaces, Dr. Bennetsen recommends.
You’ll also want to clean bedding and clothing if they’ve been covered with bodily fluids. Wash them in hot water for a long cycle, and put them in the dryer. Anytime you are cleaning surfaces or doing laundry, wear rubber gloves to stay safe.
7. Agencies are on it.
Norovirus outbreaks can be a nightmare, so various health departments and government agencies work hard to control the spread of this virus. State and local employees look into serious outbreaks, taking and testing specimens, interviewing patients, and starting recalls, when needed.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also helps investigate norovirus outbreaks, providing support, tools, and coordination.4 The group views the virus as a serious health concern, responsible for up to 800 deaths in the U.S. every year.5
8. Dehydration is the biggest concern.
This illness’s main symptoms are vomiting and diarrhea: If you get stuck with the norovirus, you’re usually losing a lot of fluids. When this happens, dehydration is common. You may feel dry in the mouth, extremely thirsty, dizzy, fatigued, and you probably haven’t urinated recently. This can lead to serious problems—and more serious symptoms—in people of all ages.
So drink water or watered-down sports drinks or juices to replace the liquids lost and the nutrients your body needs. Avoid anything with caffeine or alcohol.
9. Medications can’t help much.
When people are this ill, they want meds from their doctor. But, Dr. Bennetsen explains, “because norovirus is not a bacteria, antibiotics are ineffective in treating the illness.” So antibiotics can’t make you better, and there’s no vaccine for the virus as there is with the flu.
Sometimes, a doctor will recommend an antidiarrheal agent. Hydration, rest, and an over-the-counter fever reducer is typically the recommended course of treatment, Dr. Bennetsen says.
If you feel you’re dehydrated because you can’t keep anything down, or you see blood in your stool, seek medical care. Diarrhea should go away within a few days. If it doesn’t, or you’re worried about your illness, connect with a Teladoc Health doctor from the comfort of your couch. Sign in 24/7 to reach one of our U.S. board-certified physicians who can help you battle that bug so you’re on the mend.
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