What Is Norovirus, the Contagious Stomach and Intestinal Virus Spreading Right Now?
Norovirus cases are increasing across the country.
The virus causes intense vomiting and diarrhea.
Careful hand washing is important for prevention.
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.
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, explains infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, M.D., a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. If you have a severe case of norovirus, though, you may get tested for the virus. “I use it on inpatients as part of a GI pathogen panel for those hospitalized with diarrhea,” Dr. Adalja says.
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.
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,” Dr. Adalja says.
If you have norovirus, the CDC says you can expect the following symptoms:
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,” says Thomas Russo, M.D., chief of infectious diseases at the University at Buffalo in New York. “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. Norovirus is “extremely contagious,” Dr. Adalja says.
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, Dr. Russo says, noting that you lose a lot of fluids through vomiting and diarrhea. “It can be hard, because you feel nauseous, but it’s important,” he says. It’s important to take little sips of liquids if you’re struggling to keep things down, says William Schaffner, M.D., an infectious disease specialist and professor of medicine at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. “Gatorade is frequently recommended—it’s a balanced solution so that you get some nutrients and salt as well as your liquid,” he says.
You can also try bismuth products like Pepto-Bismol to help with the diarrhea and nausea, Dr. Adalja says. 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,” Dr. Adalja says.
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 ER 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,” Dr. Schaffner says.
Careful hand washing is key, Dr. Adalja says. You’re not doomed to get norovirus if one of your family members gets it, but Dr. Russo says that “norovirus can be difficult to avoid if it gets into your household.”
If you can, try to isolate the person who is sick, Dr. Schaffner says. It’s also crucial to do good hand washing to try to lower the risk you’ll get infectious particles in your mouth. While it’s not officially recommended, Dr. Schaffner says that wearing a mask may also help, since norovirus particles can be aerosolized when someone who is sick vomits. (Another potential benefit of wearing a mask, per Dr. Russo: It can help you keep your hands away from your mouth.)
Just a heads up: There’s no vaccine for norovirus, but Dr. Schaffner notes that researchers are looking into. In the meantime, keep practicing good hand hygiene.
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