A norovirus causes inflammation of the stomach and intestines, also known as gastroenteritis. Often referred to as “stomach flu,” this infection is the most common cause of gastroenteritis in the United States – causing diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, fatigue and mild fever in more than 20 million people each year.
Noroviruses are very contagious and can spread quickly in places where people are in close contact, like schools, day care centers and cruise ships. A person can catch a norovirus by touching a surface or object that has been contaminated and putting his hand in his mouth. Or she may eat food or drink a beverage contaminated by norovirus – either transferred during prep or via a shared glass or utensil.
Norovirus in children is extremely common because kids spend so much time in close quarters at school. Young children and babies are especially susceptible, as they tend to put their hands, toys and other objects in their mouths.
Can I prevent my child from catching a norovirus or spreading one to others?
If there's a norovirus outbreak, it's impossible to completely prevent your child from getting it. However, you can take simple steps to decrease risk of infection.
- Practice hand hygiene. Encourage your child to wash or sanitize his or her hands frequently, especially after using the bathroom and before eating.
- Keep hands out of mouths. Discourage your child from nail biting, pen chewing or anything else that involves putting their hands or objects in their mouth.
- Disinfect. Clean doorknobs, toilets, sinks and other frequently touched surfaces in your home. Chlorine bleach solutions and wipes are effective at killing norovirus. Wash contaminated clothing, bedding and stuffed toys. This can help lower the chance of a virus spreading among siblings.
- Be safe during food prep. Wash and cook food thoroughly, and don't prepare food if you're sick.
- Change diapers carefully. If your baby has norovirus, consider wearing gloves during diaper changes, sealing soiled diapers in bags and wiping or washing changing surfaces frequently to prevent spreading the virus through your family.
- Keep a sick child at home. If your household has been hit by norovirus, don't put your child's classmates at risk by sending him or her to school while contagious.
Norovirus symptoms in children
Symptoms of norovirus are very similar in all age groups, though children are slightly more likely to have vomiting as the predominant symptom, while adults may have more diarrhea. These are the most common norovirus symptoms:
- Nausea and/or vomiting
- Watery diarrhea
- Sudden onset of illness
- Stomach cramps
- Mild fever
- Body aches
Symptoms usually appear 24 to 48 hours after exposure to the virus and last one to three days. Norovirus can be contagious up to three days after symptoms disappear.
What's the biggest risk to my child?
When a baby or young child has norovirus, he or she is more likely to get dehydrated than an adult or older child. It's important to push small, frequent sips of water or electrolyte-replenishing beverages, even if your child is still vomiting.
For babies, feed them breast milk or formula and an infant/toddler rehydration solution like Pedialyte®, if recommended by your pediatrician. Toddlers should drink Pedialyte or water. Older children can sip water, coconut water and sports drinks, and suck on an ice pop.
If your baby or child has a high fever or is showing signs of severe dehydration – like infrequent urination, crying without tears, a sunken soft spot (in infants), excessive fussiness, a complete lack of energy or an inability to keep any liquids down – call your doctor immediately.
How can I help my child feel better?
Keep a sick kid home from school and activities until he or she is eating and drinking normally, has had no fever for 24 hours and has not had an episode of vomiting or diarrhea for at least 48 hours. In the meantime, you can soothe symptoms in these ways:
- Keep your child hydrated.
- Reintroduce foods carefully. Stick to clear foods like ice pops and Jell-O®; bland and easily-digested snacks like dry cereal, crackers, bread, pasta and pretzels; or the traditional BRAT diet of bananas, rice, applesauce and toast.
- Encourage lots of rest, and keep your child comfortable with cozy blankets (not for infants), favorite toys (that can be disinfected) and distractions like books, movies or cartoons.
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