Is Norovirus Dangerous?

May 22, 2024

by  | Apr 28, 2024 | Walk In Clinic

As you head out for the annual family picnic, you do a quick assessment making sure you have what you need, including a cooler and plenty of ice. Last summer, half the extended family got sick for a few days after the picnic. Suspicions ran high about what and whose food may have caused it. Several relatives even began pointing fingers. Though the cause was never discovered, there was consensus that going forward the next picnic needed to be held at a park with more shade, and everyone needed to bring a food cooler. No one wanted to experience that again!

One of the top five foodborne germs in the U.S. and a leading cause of food poisoning is the norovirus. Norovirus is a new name for the group of viruses that used to be called Norwalk-like viruses. These viruses cause inflammation of the stomach and intestines called gastroenteritis. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates there to be over 70,000 related hospitalizations annually with as many as 800 deaths a year, mostly in those over age 65. Each year, young children account for nearly half a million norovirus emergency room visits.

What is Norovirus?

Although it’s often referred to as the “stomach flu” the norovirus isn’t related to influenza which is a respiratory virus—the illnesses just share a few of the same symptoms. Some confuse norovirus with food poisoning, but it tends to come on within hours and leave as fast, rarely lasting more than a day. Norovirus has a longer incubation period and duration. A person can be infected with the norovirus in several ways, one of which is through food that has been handled by an infected person or watered with contaminated water. If you love raw oysters, be cautious because they are a common transmitter of norovirus. While norovirus can be transmitted through food, it’s more accurate to identify it as a stomach bug or viral gastrointestinal illness. The effects of the norovirus can last up to three days; however, you are still contagious for up to 48 hours post symptoms and it’s possible to transmit the virus for up to two weeks.

Outbreaks of norovirus are common and highly contagious with as few as 18 virus particles leading to an infection. Outbreaks can happen at any time, but they are most common in North America from November to April. The norovirus is a self-limited illness, meaning that since it is viral and not bacterial, it will go away on its own as it works its way through your system. And it won’t be fun.

What are the Symptoms of Norovirus?

Once exposed to the virus, those infected will fall ill within 12 to 48 hours with symptoms lasting for 1-3 days. Symptoms include:

  • Acute nausea with constant vomiting
  • Acute and continual diarrhea with stomach cramps
  • It can be difficult to distinguish between the flu and norovirus due to their similar symptoms. Whether you are dealing with the flu or the norovirus, the onset of symptoms and duration of your illness can help you to tell the difference between the two. Only a lab fecal test can determine the presence of norovirus.

How Do People Get Norovirus?

  • Having direct or indirect contact (holding hands, sharing utensils, changing diapers) with someone who is sick with norovirus
  • Eating or drinking something that is contaminated with norovirus
  • Eating uncooked or undercooked shellfish
  • Not rinsing vegetables well under running water before eating them
  • Touching a surface that is contaminated with norovirus and then putting unwashed hands in the mouth
  • Sharing a bathroom with an infected person
  • Cleaning the vomit or diarrhea/feces of an infected person without gloves/mask
  • Norovirus can be contracted through contaminated water that is not treated properly with chlorine, when an infected person vomits or poops in water, or if septic water leaks into a well. The virus can be transmitted through feces for up to two weeks even after symptoms have resolved. The virus can linger for weeks on surfaces like doorknobs and toys which help make places such as nursing homes, daycares, and schools prime environments for outbreaks.

How Can I Protect Myself from Norovirus?

If you are caring for a child or family member that you suspect may have norovirus it’s important to understand that hand sanitizer will not kill the associated viruses. You will need to wash your hands with soap thoroughly and under running water for at least 20 seconds.

Using warm, soapy water, wash your hands:

  • Before cooking or preparing foods
  • Before eating
  • After using the bathroom
  • After changing diapers or assisting in toileting needs
  • More often when someone in your household is sick

Washing surfaces with a bleach water mixture (3/4 cup of bleach per 1 gallon of water) is advised. If you can, leave the mixture on the affected surface for 5 minutes before wiping it up. If you can’t use bleach for any reason, check out the Environmental Protection Agency’s website for a page listing registered antimicrobial products that are effective against norovirus.

If you or someone you live with has norovirus stay home to avoid spreading it. Isolate yourself and do not participate in group activities until you are well. If you have symptoms, do not cook or prepare food for others, and stay home for at least three days after you recover.

Can Norovirus Have Complications?

Yes. Be on the lookout for signs of dehydration, especially among those who are very young, elderly, or who have compromised immune systems. It can occur quickly and become a grave concern in a short amount of time. Those affected by norovirus should focus on drinking as much liquid as possible to help compensate for what they are losing.

Symptoms of dehydration include:

  • Decrease in urination or dark urine
  • Dry mouth and throat
  • Feeling dizzy and weak when standing up
  • Headache
  • Children may have the above symptoms, along with:
  • Crying but shedding few or no tears
  • Fussiness
  • Grogginess throughout the day

Eating and drinking can be difficult due to inflammation of the stomach and intestines that comes with norovirus, which causes diarrhea and vomiting. It can be helpful to sip water and electrolyte solutions like Gatorade or Pedialyte and nibble on food throughout the day to reduce the likelihood of your body rejecting them.

See our doctors when there is:

  • A fever over 102 Fahrenheit (38.33 Celsius)
  • Extreme drowsiness
  • No improvement after 48 hours
  • Incoherence
  • Dehydration or suspicion of severe dehydration

Norovirus is a collection of viruses that travel under one name representing many different strains across geographic locations. While you may develop some level of immunity for one strain for a time, it is unlikely that you will have immunity to them all especially as they continue to mutate. To keep norovirus from finding you, be sure to always follow recommended hygiene and sanitation guidelines and cook all foods thoroughly.

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