Cases of “tripledemic” viruses like flu, RSV, and COVID appear to be holding steady or declining in many parts of the U.S. But rates of another miserable—and potentially dangerous—virus are on the rise.
Respiratory viruses like RSV and flu got off to “early and brisk” starts this winter season, Dr. William Schaffner, professor of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn., tells Fortune. “Now we’re having other winter viruses—including norovirus, a dominantly intestinal virus—also spreading this season.”
Cases of norovirus are rising in various areas of the U.S. and world, including Europe and Canada, and the pathogen is making headlines. It recently sickened nearly 500 on two U.S.-based cruise ships. And it’s once again responsible for myriad school closings, with one Detroit-area principal detailing a “rolling incidence of students throwing up” last week, causing the cancelation of classes from through Valentine’s Day.
This year’s norovirus season is particularly robust so far, experts tell Fortune. Here’s what you need to know to avoid the common wintertime menace known for sickening whole families—and schools, conferences, and cruise ships—at once.
What is norovirus and how does it spread?
Norovirus, often mistaken for the stomach flu, “spreads with remarkable ease,” Schaffner tells Fortune. Its nicknames include “winter vomiting disease” and “the cruise ship virus,” as it easily spreads among those in close quarters, he adds.
The illness usually moves from person to person via “fecal-oral” transmission. You can catch it by consuming contaminated food or water, or by touching a contaminated surface, then touching your mouth.
It takes a very small amount of virus to get sick—so miniscule that even a microscope can’t detect it. Because it’s primarily passed through particles of feces invisible to the naked eye, it’s easy to unknowingly spread and contract the disease—if, for example, you don’t wash your hands well after using the restroom or changing a baby’s diaper. “It doesn’t take a lot to get people pretty sick,” Dr. Georges Benjamin, head of the American Public Health Association, tells Fortune. “That’s the main reason it’s so infectious.”
What’s more, if you’re near someone who is projectile vomiting, “you can actually be infected via aerosols,” Schaffner adds.
What are the symptoms of norovirus?
Common symptoms include:
- Stomach pain
- Body aches
Symptoms occur in connection with gastroenteritis, or inflammation of the stomach or intestines, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Symptoms usually occur within 12 to 48 hours of exposure, and last for one to three days, according to the CDC. Because norovirus can cause repeated vomiting and diarrhea, “the biggest risk is getting very dehydrated,” Benjamin advises—especially among the young, elderly, and those with other medical conditions.
Why is norovirus circulating right now?
Norovirus is a common winter-time virus, though it’s also known to circulate via gatherings during other times of the year, like at spring or summer weddings and cruise-ship trips.
“We are starting to see a little bit higher activity than usual, and a little bit on the early side, too,” Alhassani says, adding that the virus is on the uptick and perhaps approaching a peak in the U.S.
Summer Health, a subscription-based pediatrics service accessible via text message, has seen a 13% increase in visits for “stomach bug” symptoms in the past two months, he adds: “We’re definitely seeing that as a huge pattern in kids across the U.S.”
The current rise in cases could be related to a recent U.S. outbreak of norovirus linked to raw oysters, as alerted by the CDC in December, Dr. Luis Ostrosky, an infectious diseases specialist at University of Texas Health Houston, tells Fortune.
While affected oysters were recalled nationally, the outbreak may be driving current cases, he says.
Cases of infectious diseases can be expected more frequently in the near future, now that pandemic restrictions have been universally lifted. “We’re going to see more and more infectious diseases that are passed on, particularly in large groups, and norovirus is an example of that,” Benjamin advises. “Remember, we’re basically going from almost no cases of anything [during COVID lockdowns] to a bunch of cases of something,” be it RSV or flu earlier this year, or norovirus now.
“We’re out and about sharing germs with each other again.”
February is a typical time for norovirus to take off, Schaffner adds: “It’s really taking advantage of our having gotten together for the first time in several years.”
How can you best protect yourself and your family from norovirus?
The best advice, experts tell Fortune: Wash your hands frequently and stay away from others who are sick.
Dr. Alice Pong, clinical medical director of infectious diseases at Rady Children’s Hospital-San Diego, advises adults to be extra diligent about washing their hands before they eat—and to have their kids do the same. Increased caution is warranted because norovirus can be transmitted via doorknobs, shopping carts, light switches, and other common surfaces.
Alcohol-based hand sanitizers don’t work well on some viruses, including norovirus. So ditch the hand sanitizer in favor of actually washing your hands, she advises.
Alhassani recommends choosing household cleaners that promise to kill 99.9% of viruses. Such labeling informs consumers that products kill norovirus, a notoriously difficult task, he advises.
If you’re sick, be sure to stay home and avoid serving and preparing food for others, Ostrosky says. He emphasizes the importance of paid sick leave, particularly for food workers, in the case of a pathogen like norovirus.
There is not yet an approved vaccine for norovirus, though scientists are working on it, according to Schaffner. Thankfully, for most, “this is an illness that makes you miserable for two to three days, but then you recover.”
“This is certainly a very vigorous norovirus year, and we’ll have to see how long it lasts, how quote on quote bad, or severe, it is,” he says. “It’s out there abundantly.”