The “stomach flu” is not a real illness – influenza is a respiratory illness, meaning it infects peoples’ lungs, airways, and sinuses. What people are truly referring to is an infection caused by a virus called “norovirus”, which has no relation to the influenza virus. Norovirus is extremely contagious – contact with an infected person, consuming contaminated food and water, and touching contaminated surfaces before touching your mouth with unwashed hands are all ways the virus rapidly spreads from person to person. Outbreaks of norovirus are incredibly common, especially in settings where people often are in close proximity to one another, such as nursing homes and childcare centers.
Norovirus causes symptoms within the first day or two of exposure, with symptoms usually coming on very suddenly. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach pain or cramping, a low grade fever, and muscle pain. The symptoms usually only last a few days; however, you can continue to shed the virus through your stool for weeks afterwards, leading to a greater possibility of the virus spreading to others.
Patients will often see symptoms of norovirus resolve on their own, although the effects of severe diarrhea can cause secondary complications. Thorough handwashing, avoiding contaminated food and water, and disinfecting contaminated surfaces are the most efficient ways to prevent the spread of this pesky virus.