Kids Health

What Parents Need to Know About Norovirus, From a Mom Who Just Went Through It

written by ERIN CELLETTI
Graphics by: Aryana Johnson
Graphics by: Aryana Johnson

Nothing can get me and my husband out of our bed and into our daughter’s room faster than the anticipatory sounds of an imminent vomiting episode coming through the monitor. Just last week on one sleepy Sunday overnight, this was our reality. Though we had truly no idea what we were in for.

My daughter continued to vomit a few more times through the night, so we brought her to the pediatrician the next day. “Stomach virus,” the doctor said. They gave her Zofran (an anti-nausea tablet) which helped immensely, gave us a prescription for a few more tablets, and sent us on our merry way. She eventually got a fever, had some more GI disruptions but was generally back to herself by Tuesday afternoon. All was well in our household. For a few hours at least.

After lunch, I quickly spiked a 102.7 fever and made my first of many runs to the bathroom. Once I figured out what was going on—the dreaded norovirus—I quickly realized we weren’t alone. Three days later just as I was coming back to life, my husband got hit, too.

I had seen headlines that Norovirus has been making waves throughout the country over the past month or so and that outbreaks are causing mass infection and school closures. Even the latest CDC data shows that 12 percent of the latest Norovirus tests sent to the CDC were positive. And the greatest proportion of this sickness currently exists in the northeast. So, what exactly is this stomach virus from hell? What, if anything, can you do to prevent it? And, if you’re hit with it, what might make it easier?

I spoke with Dr. Kari Neemann, M.S., pediatric infectious disease specialist at Children’s Hospital & Medical Center in Omaha to better understand this virus, why it’s seemingly everywhere right now, and to offer up some of my own tips that worked well for my family.

Meet the expert
Dr. Kari Neemann, M.S.
Pediatric Infectious Disease Specialist at Children’s Hospital & Medical Center in Omaha

What is Norovirus?

Norovirus, commonly known as the “stomach flu” is a virus that typically affects the gastrointestinal system. Dr. Neemann explained that it is a, “very contagious virus that is estimated to cause one out of every 15 U.S. residents to become ill each year with a vomiting and/or watery diarrhea illness that generally lasts 24 to 72 hours.”

In the U.S. alone, it typically results in, “56,000 to 71,000 hospitalizations and 570 to 800 deaths annually, predominantly among young children and the elderly.”

Most often, it’s spread when you eat or drink contaminated foods, touch surfaces contaminated with the virus or have direct contact with someone infected. What makes it even more contagious is that those who are sick secrete a large amount of virus via their stool and vomit, and it only takes a small amount to cause illness. (Dr. Neemann explained this is called a low infectious dose.)

Once infected, you generally develop symptoms within the next 12-48 hours, which can, “result in outbreaks with high attack rates, especially among semi-closed populations such as childcare centers, schools, long-term care facilities, and, classically, cruise ships.”

Can you prevent Norovirus?

By following general health guidelines like frequent hand-washing, you can help to prevent the spread of most bacteria and viruses. But if someone in your home has already come down with the Norovirus, chances are you’ve been exposed, too. Once symptoms pop up, it all comes down to home-management and over-the-counter remedies, as the virus doesn’t have a specific medication or treatment.

Dr. Neemann explained, “As people with Norovirus are having fluid losses (vomiting/diarrhea), they are at risk of becoming dehydrated. It is important to encourage someone with norovirus to continue to drink liquids.” If you or your child are consistently vomiting, it’s important to keep taking small sips of clear fluid, “such as water or oral rehydration solutions (examples include Pedialyte and low-sugar sports drinks).”

In the case of Norovirus, Dr. Neemann said that antidiarrheal medications are not recommended, and that an age-appropriate diet can be resumed once oral rehydration is tolerated.

As far as returning to work or school, she advised keeping your child home, “until their stools can be contained in the diaper or when toilet-trained children are no longer having accidents, and when the stool frequency is no more than two stools/day above the child’s normal frequency.”

Source: Canva

When to seek medical attention for Norovirus

According to Dr. Neemann, you should seek medical attention for your child, “if they are unable to keep up with the oral rehydration fluids and are now demonstrating signs/symptoms of dehydration.”

When children are dehydrated, they will typically have decreased urine output (Dr. Neemann says less than one wet diaper of void in six hours), cry with no tears, have dry mouth, sunken eyes, cool or clammy hands and feet and may become more sleepy or fussy. This is similar for adults, too.

I knew I had to get help with fluids and rehydration (more on that, below) once I realized I hadn’t peed in hours, my hands were cold and sweaty, and I was feeling lightheaded. I sent word of these symptoms via a quick text to my PA friend who confirmed I had to get myself to the ER.

How my family managed the virus

Thankfully, Norovirus was considerate and didn’t attack all of us at the same time. Instead, it spread its generosity over the course of a full week and a half, getting each one of us about two and a half days after the next. Being that we live in a two-bedroom apartment, it wasn’t easy. Or pleasant. Thankfully, we also have two bathrooms and reserved one for the ill, and one for the “healthy.”

Gatorade, Ritz crackers, Pedialyte and laundry sanitizer were the real MVPs of our Norovirus experience. I also developed a newfound appreciation for lemon Italian ice. Tiny bites of it at a time made me feel half human throughout the whole ordeal though, now, I don’t know if I’ll look at it ever again.

We spent a lot of time resting, sleeping, and actively neglecting household chores. (I’m still catching up, tbh.) For each of us, the worst lasted about two days, followed by a couple more days of ups and downs.

Out of the three of us, I ended up having to go to the Emergency Room for some intravenous fluids to help me rehydrate since I truly couldn’t keep anything down, or in. I was feeling really miserable—likely because I had surgery five weeks prior and my body was still working to heal, then fight the virus on top of it. The fluids helped immensely and I was so grateful to be able to get them. While I was there, they were also able to run labs and a stool sample to confirm the culprit for all the misery. At the very least, it gave me a sense of validation.

So if your family gets hit with the norovirus, stay calm. It’s NOT fun, but at least it’s relatively quick. Be sure to keep an eye out for the more concerning symptoms and seek medical treatment if you have any questions or concerns. You’ll be on the other side of it soon.

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