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Living Well

Stomach Bug Visiting Your House?

Last updated: Mar 21, 2016

Norovirus is in the news again.   Commonly called “stomach flu,” this gastrointestinal bug is highly contagious and spreads rapidly, causing nausea, diarrhea and vomiting.

Although it is transmitted mostly from person to person, via a handshake, for example, Norovirus is also spread through contaminated food. In fact, it is the leading cause of food-borne illness in the United States.  It is one of the reasons that Chipotle Mexican Grill has made headlines during the last year: repeated outbreaks of norovirus (as well as e-coli) at its restaurants.2

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Norovirus is the most common cause of severe gastroenteritis in the United States.  Consider these numbers:

  • Norovirus causes between 19 and 21 million illnesses annually in this country.
  • The virus sends between 56,000 and 71,000 people to the hospital every year.
  • Between 570 and 800 people—most of them young children and the elderly—die as a result of Norovirus each year.

As few as 18 viral particles of norovirus can make you sick.  This means that a tiny amount of the virus, as much as could fit on the head of a pin, can sicken as many as 1,000 people.3

When doctors and researchers speak of this bug, they say “norovirus,” but in fact there isn’t just one virus.  As with influenza, there are several strains of the virus, which is one reason that people can catch it repeatedly throughout their lives.  Having it once brings no immunity.

How is norovirus spread?

The virus originates in the feces.  People can carry the virus and be contagious for two weeks before symptoms occur and after they stop.  It is transmitted in several ways:

  • Person to person contact (caregiving a person with the virus, changing diapers, or sharking a utensil)
  • Infected food
  • Water that has been contaminated
  • Contaminated surfaces that people touch, such as doorknobs

Norovirus spreads quickly in places where a lot of people are under one roof, like schools, nursing homes and cruise ships.  Just one or two people can pass the virus to many more.4

What are the symptoms?

There is no single type of person who is at most at risk for contracting the virus, but it is most dangerous for young children and the elderly, as well as people with other medical conditions. This is because the vomiting and diarrhea caused by the virus dehydrate the body quickly. When someone has norovirus, it is very important to be on the lookout for symptoms of dehydration, which include infrequent urination, dry mouth and dizziness.

The primary symptoms of norovirus are:

  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Stomach pain
  • Secondary symptoms include:
  • Headache
  • Fever
  • Body aches

How do I protect myself and my family?

There is no vaccine for norovirus. The key way to protect against infection is proper hand washing.  This means washing your hands for at least 30 seconds with soap and running water.  (One trick is to sing “Happy Birthday,” which takes about 30 seconds, while you wash up.)  After your hands are clean, do not touch faucets, or doorknobs, or you will reinfect them.  Instead, dry your hands and then use a paper towel to protect your hands while you turn off the faucet and open the bathroom door.

Always wash your hands thoroughly after going to the bathroom or changing a diaper.  You can use a hand sanitizer in addition to washing your hands, but sanitizers should not be substituted for hand washing, according to the CDC.

Other tips include:

  • Wash fruits and vegetables before you eat them.
  • When you are sick, don’t prepare food or have close contact with other people.
  • Clean and disinfect surfaces often in the kitchen and bathroom.
  • Wash laundry thoroughly—and wash your hands after handling soiled laundry.  Drying clothing in a dryer at a high temperature is another way to kill the virus.

What is the recommended care?

Because the major hazard to the norovirus is dehydration, it is important to drink a lot of water and also to replenish the minerals and nutrients your body loses through throwing up and diarrhea. Avoid caffeinated drinks because these cause further dehydration.

While sports drinks can help replace minerals such as potassium, the CDC recommends fluids that are designed to rehydrate and replenish the body during this type of sickness.  These rehydration fluids are available at your pharmacy.  They are also available in a popsicle form for children.

Although norovirus is miserable to experience, most people recover in about three days—the key is staying hydrated and waiting until the storm passes.


1. UPI. "Pennsylvania College Closes as Dozens Ill with Norovirus." CNS News. Media Research Center, 12 Mar. 2016. Web. 15 Mar. 2016.

2. Wahba, Phil. "Chipotle Stock Gets Slammed As Sales Hit By New Norovirus Case."  Fortune Magazine, 15 Mar. 2016. Web. 15 Mar. 2016.

3. CDC. "Overview." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 26 July 2013. Web. 15 Mar. 2016.

4. ibid