Let’s start with the good news.
Cases of COVID, flu and RSV are declining, which means you can breathe easier about that triple-demic of respiratory viruses that hit the U.S. earlier this winter. Unfortunately, another highly contagious bug is on the rise, and it’s not pretty.
Norovirus is sweeping the nation, and its miserable – and potentially dangerous – gastrointestinal symptoms are taking a toll. The virus has closed schools in some parts of the country and sickened hundreds of cruise ship passengers.
What is norovirus?
Norovirus is a very common and contagious virus that can cause swelling in the stomach and intestines and result in severe nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. It’s the leading cause of acute gastroenteritis and affects up to 21 million people of all ages in the U.S. each year.
Here are some other key facts about norovirus:
- It’s a seasonal bug. Aptly nicknamed “winter vomiting disease,” norovirus is typically more common during colder months when people tend to gather closely indoors.
- You can get it more than once. There are several types of noroviruses, which means you can contract the illness multiple times throughout your lifetime.
- It’s not the stomach flu. Norovirus is not related to or caused by the influenza virus, which is marked by respiratory symptoms.
- It can be serious. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), norovirus is responsible for up to 71,000 hospitalizations and hundreds deaths each year in the U.S.
How contagious is norovirus and how is it spread?
Norovirus spreads easily and quickly. And the way that happens is pretty gross.
You get the stomach bug when even the tiniest particles of poop or vomit from an infected person land in your mouth. (We warned you.) That can happen when you:
- Eat or drink something contaminated with norovirus. Foods most likely to be contaminated are shellfish, ready-to-eat salads and sandwiches, and produce such as celery, melons and leafy vegetables.
- Touch contaminated surfaces then put unwashed fingers in your mouth.
- Have direct contact with someone who is infected.
Not surprising, the illness is easily transmitted in crowded indoor spaces, including schools, hospitals, childcare facilities, nursing homes, passenger trains and cruise ships.
Why are norovirus cases on the rise?
According to the CDC, there has been a considerable uptick in positive norovirus cases since late January 2023. So, what makes this common wintertime threat even more menacing this year?
Some experts point to a recent multistate norovirus outbreak that was linked to raw oysters from Texas. The affected oysters were recalled nationally, but the outbreak may still be driving cases up.
Dicey shellfish isn’t the only reason for the increase in cases. With most COVID pandemic prevention measures lifted or relaxed, there are a lot more germs back in circulation. While it may seem like cases of norovirus and other infectious illnesses are high this year, it’s more likely the numbers are returning to pre-COVID levels.
How do I know if I have norovirus?
Signs and symptoms of norovirus usually appear 12 to 48 hours after exposure to the virus and last 1 to 3 days. Even when symptoms subside, you can still shed the virus for up to 2 weeks after recovery.
The most common symptoms of norovirus in children and adults are:
- Stomach cramps or pain.
- Watery diarrhea.
Less common symptoms may include:
- Low-grade fever.
- Body aches.
- General fatigue.
Some people with norovirus may show no symptoms at all. Regardless, they are still contagious and can easily spread the virus to others.
Who is most at risk for the virus?
While anyone can get norovirus, some are at higher risk of developing a more serious or prolonged infection, including:
- Young children.
- Older adults.
- People with compromised immune systems.
Dehydration is a particular concern for this high-risk group and may require treatment with IV fluids.
How can I protect myself against norovirus?
The CDC offers these helpful tips to help protect yourself against norovirus and prevent its spread to others.
- Frequently wash your hands, especially after using the toilet and changing diapers and before preparing and eating food. Makes sure you reach for the soap. Alcohol-based hand gels don’t kill the virus.
- Clean and disinfect contaminated surfaces immediately.
- Do not share eating utensils, cups, toothbrushes, towels or other personal items. This is especially while you’re ill and for several days after you feel better.
- Immediately remove and wash clothing or linens that may be contaminated.
- If you are infected, do not prepare food while you have symptoms and for three days after your recovery.
- Dispose of any food that may have been contaminated by someone who is sick with norovirus.
Learn more about how to prevent norovirus in your home.
How can I treat norovirus at home?
There’s no treatment for norovirus. In most cases, you just have to let it run its course. There are some ways to help with your recovery at home:
- Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. Diarrhea and vomiting can cause dehydration, so it’s important to replace lost fluids, even when it might seem impossible to keep anything down. Try sucking on ice chips or take small sips of water, broth or other clear, decaffeinated liquids throughout the day. Avoid reaching for drinks with high sugar content that could worse your symptoms, such as juice, soft drinks or sports drinks.
Indy tip: Peppermint and ginger herbal teas are great hydration options and can also calm queasy stomachs.
- Ease back into eating. The BRAT (bananas, rice, applesauce and toast) diet is recommended for people recovering from norovirus. The quartet of foods are easy on the stomach and help bind up loose stools. Until you feel better, it’s best to avoid:
- Dairy products.
- High-acidic tomato products.
- Fatty, greasy, spicy or salty foods.
- Try medications to ease symptoms. If you can tolerate them, pain relievers (acetaminophen or ibuprofen) may help with headaches and body aches. Adults can also try over-the-counter diarrhea medication to alleviate symptoms.
- Get plenty of rest. Norovirus can take a lot of out you. Literally. Make sure you allow ample time to rest and recover.
When should I seek medical care?
Fortunately, most cases of norovirus will resolve themselves on their own. But if you have moderate symptoms that don’t improve within two or three days, it’s a good idea to visit your nearby Indigo Urgent Care. You can walk into one of our convenient neighborhood locations or book an appointment online.
If you’d rather stay on the couch and close to your bathroom, we totally get it. Simply schedule an online care appointment and be seen by a provider from the comfort of home. Either way, we’re here for you 8 am to 8 pm every day.
Some stomach bugs can be severe and may result in serious complications. Visit your nearest emergency department if you or a loved one have any of the following symptoms:
- Bloody stool or bloody vomit
- Inability to keep down any fluids
- Signs of dehydration (dizziness, headache, lethargy, fatigue, infrequent urination, and dry mouth, lips, and eyes)
- Fever above 104 degrees F
- Severe abdominal pain