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What it is
Norovirus is a very contagious virus. It causes nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Symptoms usually come on quickly and last for a few days.
It can become serious if you get severely dehydrated. Dehydration can lead to low blood pressure, a fast heart rate, organ damage, and can be fatal.
If you have norovirus, stay hydrated. Drink frequent small amounts of fluids and try to eat small, bland meals until symptoms are better.
What are the first signs of norovirus?
Norovirus symptoms in children are similar to adults. Make sure children are drinking small amounts of liquid often, and eating small, bland meals. Go to the ER at the first sign of dehydration—including low or no urine output, no tears, sunken eyes, or confusion. Before giving any medications, talk to your pediatrician. —Dr. Chandra Manuelpillai
You will suddenly start feeling nauseous, vomiting, or having diarrhea with crampy abdominal pain. Other common norovirus symptoms are headache, weakness, and body aches.
The biggest danger from norovirus is dehydration. Almost everyone with norovirus will be mildly dehydrated. But be on the lookout for moderate-to-severe dehydration.
- Moderate dehydration will cause a dry mouth or skin. And you won’t have to pee very often or very much. If you have these symptoms, try to drink fluids and call your doctor. Moderate dehydration can cause low blood pressure. You may feel dizzy, have a fast heart rate, or weak pulse.
- Severe dehydration makes you confused. Eyes appear sunken, and you won’t make any tears or urine. The very young or very old are at a greater risk of severe dehydration.
- Nausea and vomiting
- Watery, non-bloody diarrhea
- Crampy abdominal pain
- Moderate dehydration: Signs include dry mouth or skin, and peeing less often
Other symptoms you may have
- Body aches
- Mild fever
- Severe dehydration. Signs include dizziness, small amount of urine, no tears, rapid heart rate, weak pulse, confusion, dry mouth, and dry skin.
The best treatment is prevention. Good hand washing is key! Then cleaning and disinfecting contaminated surfaces. If you do get sick, rest and proper hydration are paramount for treatment. —Dr. Manuelpillai
There is no specific cure for norovirus. Because it’s a virus, antibiotics won’t help. The main treatment is to try to avoid dehydration. And waiting it out. The symptoms will go away in about 48 hours.
Dehydration can be prevented by drinking or eating small amounts of fluids often, including water, decaffeinated tea, electrolyte drinks (low sugar Gatorade, Pedialyte) and soup. Also, small, bland meals, such as soup, toast, rice or crackers, are best until symptoms get better.
Talk to your doctor before taking any medication to treat symptoms of norovirus or giving them to children. A few medications are available, such as antimotility (stop diarrhea) and antiemetics (stop nausea and vomiting). However, you shouldn’t take these unless you cannot keep liquids down. These medications keep your body from getting rid of the infection, making the sickness last longer. Many of them can also have dangerous interactions with other drugs or be risky if you have certain medical conditions.
Make sure everyone in the house is washing their hands frequently and properly for at least 20 seconds. Also wash contaminated surfaces, clothes, and bedding.
The norovirus is highly contagious. Close contact with someone who is infected with it increases your risk.
It’s more likely to spread among large groups of people—who may not wash their hands enough. Places like a daycare center, on a cruise ship, in prison, or in a nursing home.
Symptoms may be worse in young children, the elderly, or those who have a compromised immune system.
Questions your doctor may ask to diagnose norovirus
- Any fever today or during the last week?
- Are you sick enough to consider going to the emergency room right now?
- Have you lost your appetite recently?
- Have you been feeling more tired than usual, lethargic or fatigued despite sleeping a normal amount?
- Have you experienced any nausea?
Self-diagnose with our free Buoy Assistant if you answer yes on any of these questions.
Most people with norovirus can be treated at home, as long as you can stay hydrated. You do not need to see a doctor unless your symptoms last more than 1-2 weeks or if you develop moderate-to-severe signs and symptoms of dehydration.
Go to urgent care or the emergency department if you can’t keep down small amounts of fluid and/or food, have severe diarrhea, intense pain in your stomach, or if you develop signs of moderate to severe dehydration (confused, dry tears, rapid heart rate, weak pulse, confusion, dry mouth, or dry skin). Also go to the ER If you have a high fever, bloody stool, chest pain, or difficulty breathing.
How do you catch norovirus?
Norovirus is a highly contagious virus. You can catch norovirus from touching just a few particles of infected vomit or stool (“poop”), and then touching your mouth. It only takes a few virus particles to make someone sick.
Infected people can release a lot of the virus while sick and even after symptoms are gone. You’re more likely to catch norovirus if you don’t wash your hands frequently.
How long does it take to recover from norovirus?
Dehydration is the most serious consequence of norovirus. Watching for signs of dehydration is important particularly in the very young, very old, or immunocompromised. —Dr. Manuelpillai
You should be feeling better within a few days.
You may still have lingering symptoms for a few weeks, including bloating, nausea, a burning sensation in your upper abdomen, loose stools, or constipation. Talk to your doctor if you still have symptoms after a few weeks. Or if your symptoms get worse, or you develop a fever or bloody stool.
Do not prepare food or care for others until you have had two days without symptoms. Especially those who work in the food service industry, health care system, or day care.
Even after symptoms go away, you can still infect others for up to two weeks. Wash your hands thoroughly (with soap and water for 20 seconds) and clean or disinfect all possible contaminated surfaces.
The number one way to prevent getting the norovirus is washing your hands often and thoroughly. Especially after diaper changes, going to the bathroom, before eating, and before handling food. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers are less effective at killing the norovirus.
Also, certain foods are more likely to be contaminated with norovirus. They include leafy greens, fruits, and shellfish (especially oysters). Carefully wash them before handling and eating.
If you are in close contact with someone who is infected, wash your hands often and thoroughly. Clean all surfaces with soap and hot water. Disinfect with bleach. Wash any clothes, towels, and sheets used by that person in the hottest possible temperature. Dry at the hottest possible setting too.
If you had norovirus but are feeling better, do all of the above for at least two days after symptoms are gone.
Dr. Manuelpillai is a board-certified Emergency Medicine physician. She received her undergraduate degree in Health Science Studies from Quinnipiac University (2002). She then went on to graduated from Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Sciences/The Chicago Medical School (2007) where she served on the Executive Student Council, as well as was the alternate delegate to the AMA/ISMS-MSS Governing Council and the student representative to the Illinois State Medical Society (ISMS) Education and Health Workforce committee. She completed an internship year with UCLA-Harbor Medical Center's Department of Internal Medicine followed by an emergency medicine residency program at Boston Medical Center (2011) while also serving as the resident representative to the Massachusetts Medical Society (MMS) committee on Student Health & Sports Medicine. She then started working at Saints Medical Center (later Lowell General Hospital/Saints Campus and Main Campus) in Lowell Massachusetts where she served as the Continuous Quality Improvement Director for the emergency medicine group, as well as was the representative for the emergency department on the Sepsis, Stroke and PCI Quality Assurance and Compliance Committees. She joined Buoy Health in 2019. She currently works in multiple emergency departments both in the community and academics, as well as previously worked in multiple urgent care centers. She believes this mix of experiences has given her a unique perspective on the care of acute illnesses.