Health & Medicine

Stomach flu leaves quickly but packs a wallop

In Kentucky, and in many parts of the United States, cases of norovirus infections have been reported this summer. For most people, norovirus strikes quickly and doesn't last long, but it is often described as quite a miserable experience.

The highly contagious gastrointestinal virus generally doesn't cause long-term health problems, but it can make people feel very sick, with vomiting and diarrhea lasting from 24 hours to two or three days.

Norovirus is a group of extremely contagious viruses that are the most common cause of stomach upset in the United States, Great Britain and Western Europe. Overall, in the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate more than 21 million cases of acute gastroenteritis each year are due to norovirus infections. More than 50 percent of all food-borne disease outbreaks are attributed to noroviruses.

Norovirus is often in the media when outbreaks occur on cruise ships and passengers and crew become sick within a very short period of time. However, it also can spread rapidly through summer camps, health care facilities, day care centers, workplaces — basically anywhere people have close contact with the public or each other and share tools and equipment, including telephones and computer keyboards.

Along with symptoms including nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and stomach cramping, some people also have a low-grade fever, chills, headache, muscle aches and fatigue. No antiviral medicines are available to treat norovirus infections, and antibiotics are ineffective because they fight against bacteria, not viruses.

For most patients, lots of rest, lots of liquids and controlling temperature with acetaminophen or ibuprophen is recommended.

The majority of patients will begin to feel better without medical treatment within a day or two, but anyone unable to drink enough liquids to replace fluids lost because of vomiting and diarrhea may become dehydrated and should seek medical attention.

Good hand-washing and avoiding infected people are the best ways to prevent norovirus infections.

When washing hands, it is important to use soap and water and thoroughly clean hands; hand-sanitizers will not be fully effective in preventing noroviruses and should never be used as a replacement for soap and water. Also, all surfaces that may be contaminated should be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected with a bleach-based cleaner.

The most common ways people become infected are by eating food or drinking liquids contaminated with norovirus. That can happen when sharing food or drink or by consuming something prepared by someone who is infected.

You can also become infected by touching surfaces or objects contaminated with norovirus and then placing your hand in your mouth or by having close contact with another person who is infected. In general, once infected with norovirus, you are contagious from the moment you began feeling sick until at least three days after recovery.