By: Angela Tonozzi, MD, MS, Aurora Health Care in Elm Grove, WI

Winter brings us brisk breezes, cozy sweaters, hot cocoa and, unfortunately, sometimes nasty outbreaks of viral infections.

This year seems to be shaping up to be a bad one for norovirus. You and your family can get norovirus anytime of year, but it’s most common from November to April.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that each year in the U.S. norovirus causes 19 to 21 million people to become ill. The illness causes around 1.8 million outpatient visits and 400,000 emergency department visits. The virus is most severe for the elderly and young children. It claims 570 to 800 lives each year.

Norovirus can spread quickly in places where people are in close proximity, such as schools, day cares, nursing homes and cruise ships. It can quickly spread among family members.

What Is Norovirus?

Norovirus is actually a group of at least 25 related highly contagious viruses. Those who get infected with one of these viruses will often suffer from gastroenteritis — commonly known as stomach flu, which isn’t actually flu at all.

Gastroenteritis is an inflammation of the stomach and intestines caused by a virus (such as norovirus), bacteria or parasite. Symptoms may include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea and repeated vomiting
  • Stomach pain
  • Headache or body aches
  • Fever and chills

Most victims of norovirus develop symptoms 12 to 48 hours after being exposed to the virus.

Victims usually recover with no treatment other than bed rest and drinking lots of fluids. Recovery normally takes one to three days. There’s no medicine that treats norovirus.

The most common problem with gastroenteritis is dehydration. This can happen if the fluids lost due to diarrhea and vomiting are not replaced by drinking fluids. To say hydrated, victims may drink water or fluids such as sports drinks or over-the-counter rehydration fluids that replace key nutrients and minerals.

Signs of dehydration include:

  • Decrease in urination.
  • Dry mouth and throat.
  • Feeling dizzy when standing up.

Babies and young children are most susceptible to dehydration. Children who are dehydrated may cry with little tearing and may be especially sleepy or fussy.

How Does Norovirus Spread?

Norovirus can spread from person to person or through contaminated food or water. Norovirus can get into your system when you get the virus on your hands and then touch your mouth. You can get it on your hands by:

  • Providing care to someone who is sick.
  • Changing a sick child’s diaper.
  • Shaking hands with someone who has norovirus on their hands.
  • Touching a contaminated surface.

People who have norovirus are most contagious when they’re sick and during the first few days after they recover from the illness. Norovirus spreads when virus in vomit or the stool of an infected person gets on hands and then transfers to someone’s mouth.

The best ways to stop the spread of norovirus include:

  • Frequent and thorough hand washing. (Don’t count on hand sanitizers to get the job done.)
  • Using safe food preparation practices.
  • Using gloves when caring for someone who is sick.
  • Cleaning frequently touched surfaces with a good disinfectant.
  • Promptly washing clothing and linens of anyone who is sick with the virus. After washing, tumble dry the garments and linens.

To avoid spreading the virus if you or a family member gets sick, stay home until one or two days after the symptoms are gone.

When Should You Call a Health Care Provider?

As we mentioned, most people will recover from norovirus within a few days without any special treatment.

However, you should call a health care provider if a person who is sick appears severely dehydrated.

Ask your health care provider if you have questions or concerns about norovirus or any viral outbreaks in your community.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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