If you have ever gotten sick because you ate something "bad", you may have had an encounter with Norovirus.
Occasionally referred to as "stomach bug" or "gastric flu" – although it is not related to the flu – Norovirus is the leading cause of food-borne illness in the United States, causing between 19 and 21 million cases of infectious vomiting and diarrhea each year.
Norovirus outbreaks can strike anyone and everyone. For example, a cruise was interrupted earlier this month after 475 passengers contracted the infection, which was more likely to spread due to the ship's limitations.
What is Norovirus?
Norovirus is a highly contagious virus that causes gastroenteritis, an inflammation in the stomach and intestines, it can infect people of all ages and infection can occur multiple times as there are many different Norovirus nuts there are.
Symptoms such as abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea may occur in people who have an infection. Normally, these symptoms develop within 12 to 48 hours of exposure and disappear within one to three days. However, children, the elderly and people with other illnesses are more susceptible to more severe symptoms as they are at risk of dehydration by the infection.
Outbreaks can occur all year round, but occur more frequently from November to April.
How can you get Norovirus?
Noroviruses are transmitted by any type of contact that causes the virus to enter the mouth. You can pick it up directly from another person by touching an infected surface and then touching your mouth or eating contaminated food or water. It is often found in places where there are many people, and the most common cases of outbreaks are health facilities, restaurants and schools, or day care centers. Cruise ships account for only 1 percent of the total outbreak.
How to prevent and treat a norovirus infection
If you suspect you have symptoms of a possible infection, rest and drink plenty of fluids. Antibiotics can not help because the infection is viral – antibiotics only work for bacterial infections. Most importantly, avoid contact with other people and be sure to wash your hands frequently.
Also, clean all dirty clothes and be careful to handle soiled items with care. Do not prepare food for others and disinfect contaminated surfaces with bleach. You are contagious from the moment you feel sick until the first few days after you recover. If you suspect an outbreak in your community, you should also contact your state or local health department.
Tiffany Truong is a medical intern in Houston and a member of the ABC News Medical Unit.