Winter's Here, And So Is the Norovirus

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Winter's the time for norovirus. It's often called the stomach flu, but the disease is no flu.

"People might hear stomach bug, or stomach flu, or food poisoning, but it's a virus that causes gastrointestinal illness, and it's different from influenza, which is a respiratory illness," said Michele Bever of the South Heartland District Health Department.

It's especially common during the winter because people are more likely to be cooped up inside. And despite this year's unseasonably warm winter, doctors across the country have already reported norovirus outbreaks.

"It's highly infectious so it spreads rapidly when people are in close contact," Bever said.

And unlike the flu, there's no surefire way to prevent it.

"At this point there's no magic pill or vaccine. It's just a matter of being aware that it's common in the winter months," said Bever.

Experts say the best defense against norovirus is to practice proper and frequent hand washing. They also note that items and surfaces should be disinfected with a chlorine bleach solution or special cleaners designed to kill norovirus.

"It's a pretty hardy little virus and so not all disinfectants, not all cleaners will be effective against the norovirus," explained Bever, adding that surfaces should be cleaned even after the ill stops experiencing symptoms, which include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and stomach cramps.

"The virus is still shed even before you experience symptoms and then after for a number of days. It can be up for a week where you experience no more symptoms but you're still shedding virus," said Bever.

But the good news is that most people are usually fine in one to three days, as long as they stay hydrated.

"The biggest risk for norovirus is the fluid loss from either the vomiting or the diarrhea," said Katie Wichman, the community health nurse for the Central District Health Department. "So the first thing you need to do is to rehydrate yourself."