Do I Have a Stomach Virus?

Your belly’s cramping and you feel queasy. The uneasy feeling in your lower gut signals an upcoming bout of diarrhea. You wonder: Do I have a stomach virus?

There are different types of stomach bugs. Here’s how to recognize — and deal with — a stomach virus.

What Is a Stomach Virus?

Gastroenteritis is the inflammation of the stomach and intestines caused by viruses, bacteria, or fungi. The medical term for a stomach virus that causes digestive issues is viral gastroenteritis.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), norovirus is the most common foodborne stomach virus. It is highly contagious and causes gastroenteritis — leading to nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Norovirus causes more than 50,000 hospitalizations and 500 deaths yearly, most often in children and the elderly.

Other common viruses that can cause viral gastroenteritis include rotavirus, adenovirus and astrovirus.

People sometimes call the stomach viruses a stomach bug, food poisoning, or the stomach flu. But norovirus is not the same as the flu. Some symptoms (fever and body aches) can be similar, but the flu is a respiratory illness caused by the influenza virus.

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Symptoms of Stomach Virus

The most common symptoms of a stomach virus are:

  • Diarrhea.
  • Vomiting.
  • Nausea.
  • Stomach pain or cramping.
  • Low grade fever.
  • Headache.
  • Body aches and chills.

How Does Stomach Virus Spread?

Norovirus spreads quickly and easily. It travels through microscopic particles created when an infected person defecates or vomits.

These particles can float through the air, spread, and land on surfaces. They can also land on the infected person’s body and clothing and travel that way.

Symptoms usually appear 12 to 48 hours after exposure to the virus. You can catch a stomach virus like norovirus in a variety of ways.

Through food or drink

Food and water can become contaminated if an infected person touches them. Food can also become infected by norovirus particles on a counter or other surfaces.

Touching contaminated surfaces

Norovirus can live days or even weeks on surfaces like counters and doorknobs. You’re likely to become infected if you touch an object infected with norovirus and then put your fingers in your mouth.

Being in close contact with an infected person

People with norovirus shed billions of norovirus particles. So it takes very little for norovirus to spread. You’ll likely become infected if you’re caring for or using the same bathroom as the sick person.

Preventing Stomach Virus From Spreading

There are some steps you can take to prevent norovirus from spreading. Make sure you:

  • Wash your hands with soap and water often. (Hand sanitizer doesn’t completely kill norovirus.)
  • Rinse all produce before eating.
  • Don’t eat undercooked meat or shellfish.
  • Don’t make meals for anyone else if you’re sick.
  • Never share food or utensils.
  • Don’t drink from the same cup or glass as someone else.
  • Stay home from work or school for two days after your symptoms stop.

Unfortunately, a stomach virus isn’t a one-time illness. There are many different types of noroviruses. Having one strain of norovirus doesn’t protect you from other strains or even getting the same strain again.

Treating a Stomach Virus

Unfortunately, there’s no instant cure for a stomach virus. There’s no vaccine for norovirus (there is one for rotavirus), and antibiotics don’t work on viruses. The only way to treat a stomach virus is to drink plenty of fluids, get lots of rest, and wait it out.

The good news is that it doesn’t take very long. Most people feel better within one to three days after getting sick. You’re still contagious for two days after symptoms disappear, so plan to stay away from others for a few extra days.

When to Call the Doctor

You should call your doctor if you’re not feeling better in a few days after getting sick, or if you are unable to tolerate drinking fluids, notice blood in your stool, recently took antibiotics, recently traveled, or fever is not improving. “Sometimes it is hard to distinguish between viral and bacterial gastroenteritis, which is why it is important to talk to your doctor,” says Sonya Narla, DO, Primary Care at Magee. Continued vomiting and diarrhea can lead to severe dehydration. Young children, the elderly, and people with other health problems are at greater risk of becoming dehydrated.

Signs of dehydration include:

  • Dry mouth and throat.
  • Extreme thirst.
  • Decreased or absent urination.
  • Dark-colored urine.
  • You are feeling dizzy or disoriented, especially when standing up.

You may need IV fluids in the hospital if you’re severely dehydrated. If untreated, dehydration can lead to shock, organ failure, and even death.

Sources

CDC, Norovirus: Key Facts, Link

CDC, Norovirus, Link

CDC, About Norovirus, Link

NHS, Norovirus (vomiting bug), Link

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Symptoms & Causes of Viral Gastroenteritis (“Stomach Flu"), Link

National Library of Medicine, Norovirus Infections, Link

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