Norovirus on rise: how to avoid it or manage symptoms

Norovirus—also known as winter vomiting illness—is on the rise, spreading through schools, doctors’ offices, and nursing homes. “We’ve had about 20 suspect outbreaks so far this year, each involving a handful of people, but we don’t confirm cases through testing,” said Dr. Larry Madoff, director of the Department of Public Health’s division of epidemiology and immunization.

Health officials are recommending that those with telltale symptoms—diarrhea, vomiting, and stomach pain—call their doctor before seeking medical attention at a walk-in clinic or emergency room.

“The vast majority of the time, this is a short self-limited illness that goes away by itself after a day or two,” said Madoff. Those with severe vomiting or diarrhea that doesn’t resolve in a day, he added, should call their doctor for advice on avoiding dehydration. “It’s best to start with phone call rather than exposing other people with an office visit,” he added.

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Norovirus can also be transmitted in foods like oyster or shellfish, but Madoff said he hasn’t seen any food related outbreaks so far this season. Instead, the highly contagious virus seems to be spreading from person to person due to poor hygiene—such as not washing hands properly after changing a sick individual’s diaper or after cleaning up vomit, which also contains the virus.

“Washing hands frequently and cleaning contaminated surfaces like toilets and sinks is one of the most important things people can do to avoid spreading the virus,” said Madoff. Use a bleach-based cleaning agent and wear gloves if possible and launder soiled sheets in hot water.

Sick individuals should also avoid preparing food for others while they have symptoms and, if possible, for at least two days after their symptoms resolve when they’re likely still contagious.

While there’s no specific treatment for norovirus, “rehydration is important for infected people,” according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. “They must drink plenty of liquids to replace fluid lost through vomiting and diarrhea. In some cases, fluid may need to be given intravenously.”