By Hannah Sparks
(MAINNEWS) – Stomach bugs are in bloom in the US. Also known as the stomach flu (though unrelated to influenza), the highly contagious gastrointestinal illness is typically caused by norovirus infection, prompting days of vomiting, diarrhea and fever in children and adults — which could even lead to death if not properly treated.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is warning Americans about widespread outbreaks across the country, including in all 14 states that participate in the CDC’s norovirus reporting program, NoroSTAT, agency spokesperson Kate Grusich told Today.com.
Between Aug. 1, 2022, and Jan. 8, 2023, the CDC recorded 225 norovirus outbreaks — a 30% increase from last year’s count of 172 during the same period. The stats are particularly concerning for our already stressed health care systems still reeling from the pandemic.
Annually, norovirus is behind some 20 million cases of vomiting and diarrhea, 109,000 hospitalizations and 900 deaths, the CDC has found — most of which occur between November and April as Americans spend more time indoors during cold weather.
Despite the increase, experts aren’t calling the new outbreaks a bona fide “surge” just yet. Grusich told Today the numbers are “within the expected range for this time of year.” Nevertheless, Americans would do well to heed a few added precautions to prevent a night spent hugging the toilet.
Here’s what the CDC wants you to know:
What are the symptoms of norovirus — and how long is it infectious?
Classic symptoms of the stomach flu include vomiting, nausea, diarrhea and abdominal cramps, which may also be accompanied by fever, headache and body aches. These symptoms are uncomfortable but manageable for most healthy adults and children. However, infants, the elderly and immunocompromised individuals face a higher risk of dehydration and other complications stemming from prolonged symptoms and should be monitored closely by a doctor if infection occurs.
Symptoms usually kick in within 12 to 24 hours of exposure, typically waning after the first day and often lasting no more than a few days. However, it’s worth noting that norovirus is most contagious from the start of symptoms until 48 hours after all symptoms have ceased, according to the NHS.
How does norovirus spread — and how long can it live on surfaces?
Even a small colony of norovirus particles can wreak havoc in a short period of time, which explains the rapid-fire outbreaks. Just 100 particles are enough to make one sick, though infected people may shed billions of them.
The bug usually spreads following a trip to the bathroom. Unwashed hands transmit the germs to other surfaces, and they soon end up on the hands, then in the mouths of others. So it’s little surprise that kids are particularly proficient at passing norovirus to classmates, siblings and parents.
Norovirus can “live” on objects and surfaces and still infect people for days or weeks — and can survive some disinfectants, making it hard to get rid of, the CDC reports.
Once one is infected, the norovirus does provide some immunity against the next attack, though only for a brief time. Moreover, there are many types of norovirus that cause stomach flu, and infection from one offers no help against another.
How is norovirus treated?
There is no cure for the illness — nor can doctors recommend a guaranteed remedy to relieve its symptoms, since many experience norovirus in different ways. Rather, symptom management is the name of the game.
Hydration is very important to norovirus recovery, as diarrhea and vomiting will deplete the body’s fluids. Water and electrolyte-replenishing drinks such as Pedialyte should be consumed around the clock during infection.
As for nausea and other gastrointestinal symptoms, doctors recommend sick patients try eating bland foods, such as crackers, to help nourish the body amid bouts of vomiting and diarrhea. Meanwhile, pain relievers and anti-nausea medicine can help mitigate discomfort.
Most who fall ill will not need to seek specialized health care and can weather the illness at home — in relative isolation to prevent contaminating others. However, watch for more extreme symptoms of dehydration that persist for days, such as dry mouth, decreased urination and dizziness. In children specifically, dehydration can manifest as crying without tears and restlessness.
How is norovirus prevented?
As with all viruses, frequent handwashing is key to slowing the spread. Hand sanitizer, on the other hand, is no match for norovirus, research shows, due to the virus’s unique protective shield — which blocks attempts by alcohol to deactivate the germ, while also ensuring it stays alive during long stints on a hard surface, like a desk or doorknob.
This is why it’s so important to wash your hands — thoroughly, for at least 20 seconds — after every trip to the bathroom and before putting them near your mouth.
Of course, your hands stay only as clean as the things they touch — so it’s crucial to disinfect the home, office and classroom as often as possible during a norovirus outbreak. Use a high-level commercial cleaner, namely bleach, and allow it to sit for five minutes before wiping it away. Then follow up with soap and water.