You’re fine one minute, and the next, it hits you: stomach pain, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.
You’ve got a stomach bug. And while a few different germs could be to blame, chances are it’s the dreaded norovirus, the most common cause of these symptoms. Each year, norovirus sickens about 20 million Americans and causes around 900 deaths, mostly among adults 65 and older.
If it seems like it’s everywhere now, you’re not wrong. The U.S. got a bit of a break from norovirus during the height of the coronavirus pandemic. Cases plummeted with more Americans staying home and, let’s face it, with more attention on handwashing.
Common Symptoms of Norovirus
- Stomach pain
But rates have been increasing since early 2022, and right now, outbreaks of the highly contagious virus are at a 12-month high, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows. Cases in the U.K. are 77 percent higher than normal.
The very nature of norovirus makes it hard to dodge. For starters, the intestine-inflaming virus spreads quickly and easily among people; you can also pick it up from contaminated foods and surfaces. Plus, it’s what University of Maryland infectious disease physician Wilbur Chen describes as a “hearty” virus. It can survive on surfaces for long periods — we’re talking hours, even days. And it only takes a few virus particles to make you sick. Meanwhile, infected individuals can shed billions.
Still, experts say there are a few steps you can take to help prevent a bout with the bug. And the most important is the most basic.
“When talking about norovirus, and really any other virus, the best way to prevent yourself from getting sick is not to touch your eyes, nose or mouth unless you’ve washed your hands first,” says Matthew Binnicker, director of clinical virology at Mayo Clinic.
Common Settings of Norovirus Outbreaks
- Health care facilities, including nursing homes
- Restaurants/catered events
- Schools and child care centers
- Cruise ships
There’s a cringe factor to how norovirus is transmitted: by tiny particles of feces (poop) or vomit from an infected person. If someone has norovirus and doesn’t wash their hands after using the restroom and then goes to touch a doorknob, others can pick it up if they touch the doorknob and then touch their mouth. The same goes if that infected person shakes another individual’s hand or handles food. (Food like fruits and vegetables can also get contaminated when washed or grown with contaminated water.)
And an important note on cleaning your hands: “Alcohol-based hand sanitizers don't work so well against norovirus, so washing your hands well with soap and water is critical and important,” says Sabrina Assoumou, M.D., an infectious disease physician at Boston Medical Center and assistant professor of medicine at Chobanian and Avedisian School of Medicine. Soap and water — a vigorous scrub for about 20 seconds — can break up the virus’ structure much better than alcohol-based gels and sprays.