'Nasty' norovirus is on the rise in the U.S. What Canadians should know plus how to protect yourself — especially if travelling for March Break

Experts explain what you need to know about norovirus, a highly contagious bug causing vomiting and diarrhea.

This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Contact a qualified medical professional before engaging in any physical activity, or making any changes to your diet, medication or lifestyle.

What is norovirus — and how can you protect yourself?
What is norovirus — and how can you protect yourself?

Norovirus is on the rise for our neighbours across the border. According to a new set of data released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), cases of the highly contagious stomach bug have been on the rise, particularly in the Northeast.

Since late January, 13.9 per cent of tests for the virus in the Northeast have come back positive, making it the area with the highest rate in the country. The Western states have also experienced a spike in norovirus cases; as of Feb. 17, the region recorded with a three-week positive rate of 12 per cent, while the southern region recorded positive rate of approximately 9 per cent.

According to the CDC, approximately 21 million people will get norovirus each year in the United States, with approximately 900,000 dying from complications of the virus. With many Canadians preparing to travel to travel south for March Break, staying healthy and protecting yourself from the contagious virus is top of mind. So, what is norovirus — and what should you do if you get it?

Norovirus cases are on the rise in the United States. (Image via Getty Images)
Norovirus cases are on the rise in the United States. (Image via Getty Images)

What is norovirus?

According to Health Canada, noroviruses (previously known as norwalk-like viruses) are groups of viruses that cause gastroenteritis, an inflammation of the digestive system leading to vomiting and/or diarrhea.

“This is one of the most common causes of viral gastroenteritis around the world,” says Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist. “It’s transmitted year-round but there certainly is a seasonal component to it and it is more common in the winter months. “

Bogoch says that even though cases of norovirus are on the rise in the United States, it's highly possible there will be an outbreak in Canada simply because of the time of the year.

Norovirus is one of the leading causes of foodborne illnesses globally. The infection can quickly spread in settings where people are in close contact, such as hospitals, schools, nursing homes, childcare facilities and cruise ships.

What are the symptoms of norovirus?

Bogoch says norovirus is a "nasty infection" with a short incubation period of approximately 12 to 48 hours. "After the incubation period there’s this rapid onset of nausea, vomiting, abdominal discomfort and diarrhea," he shares.

How long does a norovirus infection last?

What are the symptoms of norovirus? (Image via Getty Images)
What are the symptoms of norovirus? (Image via Getty Images)

Although the virus can be extremely uncomfortable, symptoms usually improve within two days and the virus can be managed at home. One of the main concerns is staying hydrated when you do have the virus and although drinking water is good, Bogoch says replenishing your body with electrolytes is important.

"People can get sick or dehydrated enough that they need to seek healthcare,” he says, adding that the risk is especially high for young children and seniors.

“For children, watch the number of wet diapers. If there’s fewer and fewer wet diapers and if there’s less energy in the child, it’s time to take them to seek healthcare. Older individuals are susceptible o dehydration and may need additional support to maintain levels of hydration," Bogoch explains.

How does norovirus spread?

How do you get norovirus? (Image Getty Images)
How do you get norovirus? (Image Getty Images)

Norovirus is extremely contagious and is found in the vomit or stool of contaminated people. It can easily be transferred to others by those infected touching food, water or surfaces without washing their hands after using the bathroom, or by having direct contact with someone who has the virus such as by caring for them or sharing food with them.

What should I do if I have norovirus symptoms?

Nausea and vomiting can be signs of norovirus. (Image via Getty Images)
Nausea and vomiting can be signs of norovirus. (Image via Getty Images)

If you begin experiencing norovirus symptoms, the best thing to do is stay home. Be sure to drink plenty of fluids so you don’t become dehydrated and wash your hands often. Refrain from preparing food or drinks for others and make sure you get lots of rest.

How can I prevent norovirus?

There’s a myriad of ways to prevent norovirus. The simplest and most important way is to frequently wash your hands with warm, soapy water.

Bogoch says that norovirus is "a little bit resistant" to alcohol-based hand sanitizers, and advises against using them as your own form of handwashing.

In addition to handwashing, use bleach-based household cleaning solutions to keep shared and high-touch surfaces clean — especially if someone in your home already has the virus.

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