Norovirus Cases Are Skyrocketing: What You Need to Know
This winter has seen huge waves of illnesses like RSV and the flu. Now, there’s another virus making the rounds—and it’s not pretty. Cases of norovirus are surging in the U.S., according to data from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), with a massive uptick in positive tests for the virus happening since late January 2023.
Norovirus has a reputation for being intense: The viral illness causes diarrhea and vomiting, and often at the same time. Norovirus tends to be seasonal—cases usually jump up in February and March each year—and it’s understandable to have questions as it makes the rounds. So, how can you know if you have norovirus and what you can you do to prevent it? Doctors weigh in.
What is Norovirus?
Norovirus is a highly contagious group of viruses that can cause gastroenteritis, which is inflammation of the stomach and intestines. It is a common cause of stomach flu or acute gastroenteritis, and is responsible for millions of cases annually in the United States. Norovirus can be transmitted through contaminated food or water, contact with contaminated surfaces or objects, and close contact with infected individuals.
Is there a test for Norovirus?
There is a test for norovirus, but most people with the virus don’t actually get it. The test analyzes your poop, so it’s not something your primary care physician would typically order for you. If you have a severe case of norovirus, though, you may get tested for the virus. The test specifically looks for viral RNA (i.e. the virus’ genetic material) in your stool, and can be done in most labs, the CDC says.
Symptoms of Norovirus
While it’s hard to tell norovirus from other gastrointestinal illnesses without getting tested, the virus is known for being…intense. Norovirus usually is associated with violent vomiting.
If you have norovirus, the CDC says you can expect the following symptoms:
- Stomach cramps
- Body aches
People with norovirus usually develop symptoms 12 to 48 hours after they’re exposed and most get better within one to three days, per the CDC. Still, it’s not fun when you have it. Having norovirus could be one of life’s most miserable experiences. People feel absolutely miserable.
Causes of Norovirus
The way norovirus spreads is admittedly gross: You get norovirus when tiny particles of poop or vomit from an infected person wind up in your mouth, according to the CDC.
You can end up getting norovirus a few different ways:
- When you eat food or drink liquids that are contaminated with norovirus
- When you touch surfaces or objects that are contaminated with norovirus particles and then put your unwashed fingers in your mouth
- When you have direct contact with someone who is infected with norovirus
There is no special medication for norovirus, but there are a few things you can do if you happen to get it. Staying hydrated is crucial. noting that you lose a lot of fluids through vomiting and diarrhea. It’s important to take little sips of liquids if you’re struggling to keep things down. You can also try bismuth products like Pepto-Bismol to help with the diarrhea and nausea. And, if you’re really struggling to keep anything in, call your doctor. Often, a primary care physician is able to call in antiemetics such as Zofran (ondansetron) to minimize the vomiting so hydration can occur.
But if nothing else helps and you’re showing signs of dehydration (you’re not peeing much, you have a dry mouth and throat, or you feel dizzy when you stand up), you may need to go to the nearby emergency room for IV fluids. Norovirus makes you so sick for two or three days that you think you’re going to die—but then you get better
Norovirus infection is highly contagious. There are many types of noroviruses. Anyone can get norovirus infection more than once.
To prevent norovirus infection:
- Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after using the toilet or changing a diaper and before you prepare food and eat or drink. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers aren't as effective against noroviruses as using soap and water.
- Avoid contaminated food and water, including food that could have been prepared by someone who was sick.
- Wash fruits and vegetables before eating.
- Cook seafood thoroughly.
- Disinfect surfaces that might have been contaminated. Wear gloves and use a chlorine bleach solution or a disinfectant that is effective against noroviruses.
- Use caution when traveling. If you're traveling to areas with a high risk of norovirus infection, consider eating only cooked foods, drinking only hot or carbonated beverages, and avoiding food sold by street vendors.
Just a heads up: There’s no vaccine for norovirus, but researchers are looking into. In the meantime, keep practicing good hand hygiene.
Suppose nothing else helps, and you’re showing signs of severe nausea or vomiting, dehydration, diarrhea, fever, stomach cramps, or headache; you may need to go to the closest emergency room for IV fluids and immediate medical help.
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