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Norovirus: How to (Really) Protect Your Family

Can you protect your family against the vicious stomach virus that is spreading like wildfire across multiple parts of the country? We talked to an expert to find out.

little girl with stomach bug Imcsike/Shutterstock
Two weekends ago, I started feeling really, really tired. Not just working-mom-of-three tired. Like, couldn't-pick-my-head-up-off-the-kitchen-counter tired. Soon, I was nauseous. An hour later, I was as sick as I'd ever been in my life, praying for mercy as I vomited repeatedly, fought off dizzy spells, and suffered through violent chills and fever.

For days afterward, I would experience bouts of nausea, and felt about as wiped out as if I'd just given birth. The even-worse news? My husband fell prey to the "stomach bug from hell" just hours after I did, and within 48 hours, this brutal virus had also claimed my three children as victims. They were heartbreakingly sick, throwing up throughout the night, and then spent the next several days horribly dehydrated, and looking like little, pale ghosts shuffling around the house. I can't even count how many bottles of Pedialyte we went through!

Luckily, we are all recovered now, but friend after friend has been going down with the same icky virus. It's clearly circulating where we live and, I'm learning, throughout the country. It's called norovirus, and according to the Wall Street Journal, it's particularly bad this year. The highly-contagious norovirus's unstoppable path of misery has swept the nation, affected some 20 million people, and even causing some schools to shut down.

The problem is that norovirus is the most contagious virus we know of, according to the WSJ's reporting. It's super easy to get it; one can become sick from person-to-person contact or via droplets from vomit in the air. So that explains why when I got sick with my husband and kids nearby, well, that was it. Rapid onset of symptoms is another characteristic of this truly savage bug.

We talked to Mobeen H. Rathore, M.D., professor and associate chair in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Florida, to get more facts about norovirus. "Norovirus is one of the viruses well known to cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Although often referred to as 'flu' it is not related to influenza," Dr. Rathore told us. Norovirus infections are common every year, and typically occur in the winter months (November through March). There's no evidence to suggest that this year's outbreak is truly any worse than usual. What we may be seeing are explosive outbreaks of the easily-spread virus.

One thing I was unclear about is how norovirus is different from the much-feared rotavirus. "Rotavirus infections usually occur in children and before two years of age," Dr. Rathore explained. Of course now, there's a vaccine for the rotavirus. "Infection is now rare and usually occurring in those children not immunized against rotavirus."

Unfortunately, there is no vaccine for norovirus. "Norovirus has many strains and infections can recur with different strains and in all ages," Dr. Rathore told us. For now, all parents can do is try their best to protect their families against infection. Dr. Rathore recommends good hand washing hygiene with soap and water as the most effective way to prevent transmission. Hand sanitizers don't work as well, he warns.

You'll also want to carefully clean vomitus and diarrheal material on surfaces (with gloves!). The Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Pesticide Programs recommends using cleaners such as bleach, Clorox Healthcare Bleach Cleaner, or Clorox Hydrogen Peroxide Cleaner disinfectants.

Meanwhile, you may have heard that drinking grape juice can effectively ward off norovirus. Oh, if only this were true! Because how simple would it be to pick up a few jugs of the sugary stuff, and just put it in front of your kids? It's not like they would fight you on having to guzzle the sugar-laden beverage. Unfortunately, there's no evidence to suggest that grape juice's effects on the pH in one's stomach, or its supposed ability to kill off the virus within the body, is real. So, no, grape juice is not a "magic" elixir that fights off norovirus. And just consider that grape juice stains, so if your child happens to get sick after drinking it, and can't make it to a bathroom, well...it may not be worth the risk.

Incidentally, I have a friend who's a mom, and an infectious disease doctor. Her son got a stomach bug last weekend, and then, so did her entire family. So, in the end, there may not be a foolproof trick to stop the spread of this cruel virus, no matter who you are. Unfortunately, you may end up like me and my family, having to ride it out, and praying for mercy. Oh, and begging the universe that you don't get infected with another strain anytime soon.

Melissa Willets is a writer/blogger and a mom. Find her on Facebook where she chronicles her life momming under the influence. Of coffee.