How to Prevent Stomach Viruses

Most stomach flus are caused by noroviruses. Here's what you can do to prevent them

Credit: Flickr / Hygiene Matters

Washing your hands regularly helps stop the spread of stomach flu

Often mistaken for food poisoning, a stomach flu can be caused by a variety of bugs called noroviruses

Noroviruses are a group of viruses known for causing gastroenteritis (stomach illness).

Frequently called stomach flu or mistaken for food poisoning, norovirus infection affects both the stomach and intestines, producing symptoms that include nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps and diarrhea, as well as fever, headache and fatigue. Symptoms usually appear 24 to 48 hours after exposure to the virus and normally last up to three days.

How and Why Viruses Spread

Noroviruses (such as Norwalk) generally spread through contaminated food or water, by touching contaminated surfaces or by having close contact with an infected person.

These viruses are extremely hardy and highly contagious. They can survive on surfaces for up to 12 hours, and people infected with norovirus can carry the virus for up to two weeks after their own symptoms have passed.

Norovirus outbreaks are often reported in environments where people gather – daycares, schools, hospitals, large social events and restaurants. Not surprisingly, the incidence of norovirus increases in the winter months when people spend more time indoors.

Treatment for Stomach Flu

Noroviruses can’t be treated with antibiotics. The main treatment for norovirus infection is to drink plenty of liquids to prevent dehydration. Water, herbal tea or electrolyte rehydration drinks are best – avoid sports drinks, sodas or fruit juices.

With ample fluids and lots of rest, most people recover within two or three days. If serious dehydration occurs, or if the symptoms persist for more than 72 hours, see your doctor.

How to Defend Against Contracting Noroviruses and Prevent their Spread

  • Wash your hands regularly, especially after using the toilet.

  • Keep your hands away from your mouth.

  • Avoid direct contact with someone who is infected. If you’re the caregiver, use proper precautions.

  • Clean and disinfect contaminated surfaces using hot, soapy water, and then disinfect using a household disinfectant.

  • If you’re ill, stay home and avoid handling food for at least 48 hours after symptoms are gone.

  • Wash clothes or linens that may have come in contact with the virus.

  • Avoid food you think may have been contaminated (especially shellfish and salad ingredients).

Originally published in Wellness Matters, Canada Wide Media’s quarterly newsletter on health and wellness.