You may have heard of people on a cruise ship all becoming sick with something called “norovirus” and wonder what that is.
Noroviruses are a group of viruses that can cause an inflammation of the stomach and intestines (gastroenteritis). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that more than 20 million cases are found in the U.S. each year – this means that 1 in every 15 Americans will become sick.
The illness develops suddenly and causes stomach cramping, vomiting and diarrhea. People who have a norovirus generally feel very ill. However, the virus generally isn’t serious, and most people get better in one to two days. Very young children, the elderly and those with other health problems may develop complications including dehydration. About 70,000 people each year are hospitalized for complications and approximately 800 deaths occur.
How Norovirus Spreads
Norovirus spreads through personal contact, usually in crowded, closed places. Daycare centers and long-term care facilities for the elderly, hotels, schools and cruise ships often have outbreaks of the virus. Even food can carry the virus – generally from an infected person preparing or handling the food. The virus also lives on surfaces so you can pick it up and become infected by touching your mouth.
“You are considered contagious from the moment you begin to show symptoms and until about three days after you recover. In some cases, the virus may linger for several more days,” says Rajesh Mathew, MD, an infectious disease and internal medicine physician on staff at Frye Regional Medical Center.
Treating Stomach Viruses
Because these are viruses, antibiotics will not help. The best treatment is to make sure that you stay hydrated while you are sick. There are two rotavirus, which can cause severe diarrhea, vaccines that help protect infants and young children. These vaccines generally are given before the child turns one.
Contact your doctor if you notice the following symptoms:
- Unable to keep liquids down for 24 hours or vomiting for more than two days
- Vomiting blood or bloody diarrhea
- Signs of dehydration
- Fever above 104 F in adults or 102 in children
- Infants or children who are unusually tired or extremely irritable
With any stomach bug, dehydration can lead to serious complications. You need to replace the fluid your body loses due to throwing up and having diarrhea. Symptoms of dehydration may include a less frequent urination, a dry mouth and throat and feeling dizzy. Children may cry less or cry without tears. They also may be unusually sleepy or fussy. If you have a sick infant, watch for the number of wet diapers. Your child should wet his or her diaper every six hours or so.
You can prevent dehydration by drinking lots of liquids. You may need to take small, frequent sips to prevent upsetting your stomach. There are oral rehydration fluids that you can buy that help but look for those with lower sugar content. Also you should avoid caffeine and alcohol.
If you notice signs of dehydration or can’t keep small amounts of liquid down, call your doctor.
What You Can Do at Home
If you or a family member has a stomach virus, stop eating solid foods for a few hours. Try using ice chips or just take small sips of water. When you start feeling better, begin eating bland foods. The acronym BRAT can help you remember foods that are tummy-friendly: Bananas, Rice (plain), Applesauce and Toast. Other foods to try are gelatin, soda crackers and chicken.
Dairy foods, caffeine, alcohol, nicotine and fatty or highly seasoned foods can make symptoms return, so avoid them until you’re better. And remember to get lots of rest to help your body recover.
“As with all infectious viruses and bacteria, frequent and correct hand washing may keep you and your family from becoming ill. It’s especially important to wash with soap and water after using the toilet or changing diapers,” adds Dr. Mathew. “Also make sure you scrub up before cooking or eating. Although alcohol-based hand sanitizers are convenient, they aren’t a substitute for soap and water.”
You also should wash fruits and vegetables before eating them or cooking with them. If you eat oysters or shellfish, be sure to cook them thoroughly before eating.
If someone in your family does become sick with a stomach virus, clean and disinfect any contaminated surfaces. You should use a bleach-based household cleaner to help kill the virus. If articles of clothing become contaminated, handle them carefully to avoid spreading the virus. You may want to wear rubber or disposable gloves and wash your hands afterwards. Wash contaminated items with detergent on the longest cycle your washing machine has and then machine dry them. For a physician referral, call 828-315-3391.