Dear Alice,

I have been hearing a lot about the norovirus. What is it and how can I protect myself from getting it? I feel like there are germs everywhere, especially on public transit!


Dear Reader, 

It’s understandable that the thought of norovirus might make you a bit queasy. Norovirus is a highly contagious virus that causes acute gastroenteritis (inflammation of the stomach, intestines, or both) and common symptoms include vomiting and diarrhea. Although it's unrelated to the flu (influenza) virus, it's transmitted in similar ways: through contact with infected individuals, consuming contaminated water or food, or touching contaminated surfaces (yep, this includes public transportation!). Unfortunately, there are no antibiotics or other medications that can be prescribed to treat a norovirus infection and as of yet, there's no vaccine for prevention. 

Because transmission via contact with contaminated surfaces is fairly common, one of the best ways to protect yourself from infection is through frequent and thorough hand washing. If you’re around many people during the day, or if you happen to frequently touch common surfaces (e.g., subway car poles or handles), you may want to wash your hands more frequently. Though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises handwashing as the best prevention method, alcohol-based hand sanitizer may also be useful if you don’t have immediate access to soap and water. Additionally, be sure to avoid or limit spending time with individuals experiencing symptoms to minimize your exposure to the virus. 

Symptoms of norovirus infection often include nausea, stomach pain, fever, headache, vomiting, diarrhea, and potentially dehydration (as a result of the other symptoms). These symptoms can range in severity, but usually only last for one to three days. The good news is that there are a number of strategies to prevent infection. 

Washing your hands after going to the bathroom can mitigate the risk of (re-)infection both before and after symptoms manifest—note that the virus can live in stool for two weeks (sometimes more) after you start to feel better. In addition to keeping your hands clean, it’s also recommended to wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly before eating them. Additionally, norovirus can be found in oysters and other shellfish if these products are grown in contaminated water. Oysters, clams, mollusks all act as natural aquatic filters, which is great for the environment, but potentially risky for eating! Be sure to thoroughly wash these products before eating them and consider cooking them as opposed to eating them raw. 

Even with the best of intentions for prevention, sometimes a germ or two still remains. Have no fear, there are a number of tips for aiding recovery should you happen to contract it. 

  • Drink lots of liquids (think water, sports drinks, broth, and oral rehydration fluids) to prevent dehydration. Dehydration, which causes infrequent urination, dry mouth, and dizziness upon standing, is one of the more serious possible related side effects, especially among children and the elderly. 
  • Disinfect all surrounding surfaces with a cleaning product that contains bleach after vomiting or using the bathroom. The CDC recommends cleaning with a bleach solution of approximately 5 to 25 tablespoons of household bleach per gallon of water. 
  • Thoroughly wash any clothes or linens that might have been contaminated with vomit or fecal matter. 

It can be important to keep in mind that prevention is an ongoing process. If you do at some point become infected with one strain of norovirus, that doesn’t necessarily render you immune to other types of the virus. Maintaining good hygiene for both you and your environment can be your best bet at preventing infection. For more information about Norovirus, consider checking out the CDC for additional prevention methods and tips. If you’re concerned about your health or feel you may be showing symptoms, you might make an appointment with your health care provider to be examined and accurately diagnosed. 

Last updated Apr 28, 2023
Originally published Feb 15, 2013

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