Ask Dr. Ty: Contagious stomach viruses

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©Jaimie Duplass - Fotolia.com

©Jaimie Duplass - Fotolia.com

If you managed to escape the flu or the hundreds of cold viruses out there (or even if you didn’t), you’re not in the clear. There’s yet another threat to your immune system: a highly contagious stomach bug called norovirus.

Considered by some to be the “Ferrari of stomach viruses,” it is best known for infecting hundreds of cruise ship passengers in 2007. Each year, norovirus causes 21 million illnesses, 70,000 hospitalizations and 800 deaths. It is also the most common cause of food poisoning.

We’re at the peak of norovirus season — 80 percent of outbreaks occur from November to April — and on top of that, a new strain is making its way through the United States.

How is it spread?

Norovirus is spread from an infected person, through infected food or water, or touching an infected surface like a doorknob.

It spreads fastest when a large amount of people are in close quarters such as dormitories, cruise ships, prisons and hospitals.

What symptoms does it cause?

The virus causes your stomach and intestines to become inflamed, leading to nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain. Other symptoms include fever, headache and body aches.

How can I prevent myself or others from getting it?

  • Wash your hands with soap and water before touching your eyes, nose, mouth or your food. An important difference between norovirus and other viruses is that alcohol sanitizers do NOT work on norovirus.
  • Wash all fruits and vegetables well and cook shellfish thoroughly.
  • Immediately wash laundry that has vomit or feces to prevent infecting others.
  • If you’re sick, don’t prepare food for anyone else, as you can spread it that way as well.

What’s the treatment?

There is no treatment for norovirus. It has to run its course. Most viruses last in the system for 10 to 14 days, although expect to feel ill for about a week.

So, what can I do?

All you can do is rest, stay hydrated, and treat the symptoms while it passes.

  • Nausea and vomiting: It’s important to stay hydrated, but while feeling nauseated, don’t overdo it. Take small sips at a time — no large gulps. Ice chips are also an option. For some people, ginger candy, ginger ale or lemon helps.
  • Diarrhea: If the diarrhea is making you miserable, consider using loperamide over-the-counter (also sold as Immodium). However, if are you one of the “lucky” ones who has diarrhea but no vomiting, try to keep up with the fluids you’re losing in the diarrhea by drinking more liquids.
  • Fever and aches: Use fever reducers and pain medications such as ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil) or acetaminophen (Tylenol). Cool and warm baths can also help keep the temperature down without medication.

Are there any major complications of norovirus?

The biggest complication is dehydration.

For most healthy adults, going one or two days with vomiting and diarrhea is usually not dangerous. But, remember to drink as much fluids as possible, even if in sips.

However, for those who cannot keep down their vital medications, or have other major health issues like diabetes, they should seek medical assistance.

For children, especially small children, if they are urinating much less than usual or have dry mouth, call the pediatrician or bring the child to an emergency department.

Dr. Tyeese Gaines is a physician-journalist with over 10 years of print and broadcast experience, now serving as health editor for theGrio.com. Dr. Ty is also a practicing emergency medicine physician in New Jersey. Follow her on twitter at @doctorty or on Facebook.

Note: The information included in this post is for educational purposes only. It is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. The reader should always consult his or her healthcare provider with questions. Reading the information on this website does not create a physician-patient relationship.

Send your questions to askdoctorty@gmail.com.