7 common stomach flu symptoms you need to know about
Also known as the stomach flu or bug, norovirus often triggers painful gastrointestinal symptoms as well as fever, aches and headaches within days of exposure.
Symptoms may last up to 72 hours after they begin, but this timeline may vary and depends on how you choose to recover at home.
While there isn't a specific medication for norovirus, frequently washing your hands and cleaning common areas in your home — including the bathroom and kitchen — are essential to keep it from spreading.
Federal health agents are warning Americans that annual cases of norovirus have recently been on a surge here in the United States, per data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Highly viral, norovirus can trigger painful bouts of nausea, vomiting and diarrhea in those who touch contaminated surfaces or share direct contact with someone who is sick, highlighting the need once more for stringent handwashing.
According to CDC figures, more than 200 outbreaks of norovirus — which is sometimes referred to as the stomach flu or stomach bug, though it has no official ties to influenza — have occurred between August 1, 2022 and early January 2023. This is an increase compared to just 172 outbreaks during the same period last year, per the CDC; and positive norovirus cases continued to spike well into the end of February. And it's likely that total norovirus cases are well underreported given that medical testing is required for a formal diagnosis, as CDC figures place real-time norovirus cases closer to 20 million each year.
#Norovirus is an extremely contagious virus that causes vomiting & diarrhea. Explore 5 ways to protect yourself & others from norovirus: https://t.co/lQGy01Q8pe. pic.twitter.com/Deny6GLatD
— CDC (@CDCgov) September 13, 2021
Norovirus tends to surge in the wintertime as more people head indoors, spending time at home fighting off other seasonal illnesses. And because norovirus is spread silently via microscopic virus particles — largely when people accidentally touch an infectious surface and put fingers inside their mouth, or share food or drinks with sick individuals — it can easily rip through whole households at once, explains Ali Alhassani, M.D., pediatrician at Boston Children's Hospital and head of clinical at Summer Health, a digital pediatric care platform.
"Norovirus is highly contagious and only takes a small amount of virus to infect, [so] it makes sense that all of these factors combined have led to an uptick in cases recently," Dr. Alhassani tells Good Housekeeping.
You may end up being unlucky enough to come into contact with norovirus by eating or drinking something that's contaminated, prompting foodborne illness soon after. But one important aspect of preventing this one-off case from affecting loved ones in your household lies in disinfecting high-touch surfaces in your bathroom and in the kitchen, explains Carolyn Forté, the Good Housekeeping Institute's Home Care & Cleaning Lab Executive Director.
Read on to learn more about common norovirus warning signs, treating the illness effectively and how you may work to prevent others in your family from getting sick, too.
Common norovirus symptoms
Many associate the stomach flu with gastrointestinal issues that can make everyday life (and even eating!) feel impossible, causing immense pain for days on end. But federal health experts are keen to note that norovirus may also cause other flu-like symptoms, which should clue you into speaking with your doctor to see if norovirus may be to blame. If you're experiencing headaches or body aches alongside stomach discomfort for days on end, there's a chance that norovirus is at play.
This year's norovirus outbreaks have proved consistent with years past, meaning Americans can continue to look for these two particular subsets of symptoms if they're concerned they're experiencing a norovirus illness.
"Norovirus symptoms [primarily] include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach cramping, and sometimes fever, headache and body aches," Dr. Alhassani explains. "These symptoms are relatively consistent with other strains of years past."
Diarrhea and vomiting can be particularly concerning, as they may easily lead to dehydration, which can prompt a worsening condition due to things like dizziness and dry mouth. Younger children may not be able to express their thirst at this time, either, and caregivers will see a lack of tears during frustrated cries if this is the case as well.
Since someone can experience a few of the hallmark symptoms of norovirus infections as standalone issues, you may be wondering if your GI discomfort is norovirus-related or something more fleeting. There isn't a bonafide way to tell, but doctors say that the easiest way to distinguish between norovirus and lesser gastrointestinal distress is how long the issue persists.
"Norovirus symptoms usually appear 12 to 48 hours after exposure, but temporary upset stomach symptoms appear much faster — within a couple of hours," Dr. Alhassani adds. "However, symptoms from an upset stomach will subside within 24 hours at most, which isn't the case for norovirus infections."
To recap, this is the full list of potential norovirus symptoms as noted by CDC officials:
It's crucial to remember that norovirus — which is just one example of enterovirus, a group of viruses that may impact the gastrointestinal tract — may require hands-on medical care and, in some cases, hospitalization if symptoms are severe and left unchecked.
How long does norovirus last?
Unlike other discomforting issues like food sensitivity or poor food quality, norovirus illness doesn't usually produce immediate symptoms; it may be a few days before the symptoms listed above present in impacted individuals. Dr. Alhassani says most cases of norovirus cause symptoms to become apparent between 12 and 48 hours after exposure.
Not all illnesses caused by norovirus are the same, meaning some individuals may have more severe symptoms based on their own exposure as well as any preexisting health conditions. If you are currently experiencing norovirus sickness, you should expect to feel extremely ill and to experience continuous gastrointestinal issues throughout the day. Feeling continuously nauseous or experiencing chronic diarrhea is expected, for example, until the sickness has run its course.
How does norovirus spread?
Put simply, norovirus can spread through feces, vomit and other bodily excretions — and more often, through small virus particles that remain transmissible on a contaminated surface. CDC officials note that those who are impacted can "shed billions of norovirus particles" that are naked to the eye, and only a relatively small amount of these viral particles can infect another otherwise healthy individual.
People are most contagious when they are experiencing symptoms, as well as during the first few days of recovery when symptoms have largely subsided, according to published research.
Because viral norovirus particles may easily contaminate surfaces — including food that may be placed on sullied surfaces in the kitchen — keeping your hands properly washed if you are sick is crucial. Your family will also need to keep an eye on the rest of your home; both Clorox and Lysol make products that can effectively kill traces of norovirus on surfaces when used according to manufacturer's directions, our Good Housekeeping Cleaning Lab experts say.
"Food prep and food contact surfaces are important as are most high-touch areas in both the bathroom and the kitchen, including faucet handles, appliance handles, cabinet and drawer pulls, light switches, and shower knobs," explains Forté. "And most of these products recommend rinsing after using them on food contact surfaces, like countertops and a baby's high chair tray. Make sure you check the usage directions about food contact surfaces."
Using a cleaning product versus a disinfectant spray requires different approaches — but whichever product you use at home to keep norovirus from spreading, be sure you thoroughly clean the surfaces first, then keep them wet with the disinfectant for the required time. For example, Purell's Multi-Surface Disinfectant requires a surface to remain wet with cleaner for 30 seconds to one minute to fully disinfect.
"Follow the usage directions on products by keeping the surface wet for the required time to be sure the product is completely killing germs," Forté adds.
Lastly, it's important to note that hand sanitizer doesn't always work to eliminate norovirus risk, and shouldn't be substituted for handwashing, according to the CDC.
How to treat norovirus at home
The only way to confirm if you are experiencing a norovirus infection is to seek out medical care from your doctor or a qualified urgent care clinic, where a PCR test will confirm the virus' presence. There isn't a particular medication used to treat norovirus alone, but further medical attention may be necessary to treat severe dehydration caused by chronic vomiting and diarrhea.
Staying well hydrated while you are recovering is essential, working in plenty of water and other fortifying beverages to help your body recover, Dr. Alhassani adds. Using over-the-counter products like Tylenol or Advil may ease non-gastrointestinal issues as you recover.
"Eating foods that are easier to digest — think items like crackers, toast, rice, and potatoes, for example — are helpful with GI distress," he says. "Most importantly, practicing good hand hygiene will help prevent illness and keep other people inside the home from catching it as well."
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