It's called the stomach flu, the 24 hour flu, or "it's something I ate." Acute gastroenteritis that causes intestinal cramps, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea goes by many names. Because it is most often seen during the fall and winter in the United States, it is often confused with influenza but they are not related. It may be caused by a bacterial infection or parasites, or by a large number of viruses. This year, the "bug" that is going around is caused by a new norovirus, GII.4 Sydney, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) on Jan. 24.
The family of noroviruses, as reported by the CDC, causes about 21 million illnesses in the United States every year, some 70,000 hospitalizations and about 800 deaths. The virus is spread through personal contact, in contaminated food and drink or by touching contaminated surfaces. While norovirus-caused illness outbreaks on cruise ships get the most press attention, nearly two-thirds of all outbreaks are in long-term care facilities such as nursing homes.
Like all viral illnesses, an illness due to a norovirus cannot be cured. The symptoms can produce dehydration, and the CDC suggests a patient drink lots of liquids, without caffeine or alcohol. Over the counter oral rehydration fluids are especially recommended. If dehydration persists or becomes severe, hospitalization for IV fluid replacement may be necessary. Dehydration is the number one health risk for the elderly and for infants.
While research on a norovirus vaccine is underway, there is currently no immunization available. Preventing an infection requires hand washing and frequent cleaning of clothing, bed linens, and contaminated surfaces. The CDC has a web page with their suggestions on prevention and cleaning. A patient can be contagious for several days after symptoms end, and some surfaces can remain contaminated for nearly two weeks, the Public Heath Agency of Canada states.