Avoiding the Stomach Flu

Avoiding the Stomach Flu

March 12, 2024

In the U.S., norovirus is the No. 1 cause of acute gastroenteritis, or inflammation of the stomach and intestines. Norovirus can lead to severe vomiting and diarrhea, especially in young children and the elderly. Every year, norovirus (aka the stomach flu) causes 900 deaths, 109,000 hospitalizations and 465,000 emergency room visits. Most of those deaths affect people 65 and older, and most ER visits involve young children.

These numbers come from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which tracks outbreaks nationwide. The CDC reports that norovirus outbreaks are common from November to April, but they can happen anytime. 

Note that norovirus is different than the flu, which is caused by the influenza virus. Influenza doesn't usually cause gastrointestinal symptoms.

Norovirus is highly infectious. It is spread through the fecal-oral route, meaning if a person gets feces or vomit from an infected person in their mouth, they get infected. According to the CDC, norovirus is often picked up from touching contaminated surfaces, shaking hands with a person whose hand is contaminated, changing dirty diapers or caring for another person who is ill. 

To protect yourself, your family and your coworkers, follow these tips for preventing the spread of norovirus.

Wash your hands

The importance of frequent and proper handwashing cannot be overstated. Because norovirus is primarily spread by touching contaminated surfaces, frequent handwashing can go a long way toward preventing infection. Here are some helpful handwashing guidelines from the CDC:

How to wash your hands:

  1. Wet your hands with running water.
  2. Apply soap and lather the fronts and backs of your hands, between your fingers and under your nails.
  3. Scrub for 20 seconds, or roughly two rounds of “Happy Birthday.”
  4. Rinse your hands under running water.
  5. Dry your hands with a clean towel, a disposable paper towel or an air dryer. Do not touch the faucet with your clean hands. Instead, use the towel to turn it off.

Important: Do not use hand sanitizer as a substitute for handwashing! The CDC says hand sanitizer does not effectively kill norovirus.

When to wash your hands:

  • Before, while and after preparing food
  • Before and after caring for someone who is sick
  • Before and after eating
  • Before and after treating a wound
  • After changing a diaper or helping a child use the toilet
  • After blowing your nose
  • After touching an animal or handling pet supplies
  • After handling garbage

Disinfect surfaces and laundry

If you are caring for someone who is sick, clean and disinfect surfaces and bedding. The CDC recommends using bleach to disinfect surfaces. Standard disinfecting wipes and other household cleaners do not effectively kill norovirus.

For surfaces: Use a bleach solution with a concentration of 5-25 tablespoons of household bleach to 1 gallon of water.

For soiled laundry: Wash on the hottest cycle and place the items in the dryer on hot.

Stay away from those who are sick

This may not always be practical, especially if you have small children. However, isolating from those who are sick is the best way to minimize your chances of infection. Designating a sick room and bathroom significantly reduces the number of contaminated surfaces in your household.

If you’re sick, stay home

Norovirus is incredibly contagious. And you may continue to shed the virus even after you feel better. For this reason, the CDC says to stay home for at least two days after your symptoms subside.

Norovirus is a hearty virus that won’t be going away anytime soon. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do. With a few simple measures (especially handwashing), you can keep yourself and your family safe and healthy.