How to Prevent the Stomach Flu

Simple Tips Everyone Should Practice

Stomach flu, also known as norovirus infection, is a contagious illness that can affect people regardless of age. The infectious disease often spreads in areas where people are in close contact for long periods, like cruise ships or prisons.

Because many different types of norovirus exist, it’s possible to contract the virus multiple times in a lifetime. It can be challenging to prevent this very transmissible illness, but you can take steps to try and prevent it.

This article will cover how the stomach flu spreads, different strategies for prevention, how to treat it at home, and when to see a doctor.  

woman experiences stomach pain

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What Is It?

Norovirus or stomach flu is a contagious sickness. While people often call it the stomach flu, it’s not related to the seasonal flu virus. Its symptoms are mainly gastrointestinal (related to the digestive system) and include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea and vomiting 
  • Stomach pain or cramping 
  • Fever
  • Body aches
  • Headache

The symptoms happen because the virus causes gastrointestinal inflammation. In some people, severe diarrhea and vomiting can cause dehydration (loss of body fluids).

Symptoms come on soon after exposure, usually within 12 to 48 hours. It can affect anyone, but people who work with children or who are in close quarters with others who are infected are more likely to contract the virus. 

Older people and individuals with underlying illnesses or weakened immune systems may experience more severe symptoms compared to others.

Is It Contagious?

Norovirus is very contagious. You contract the stomach flu by ingesting particles of infected feces or vomit. Even a tiny speck of infected material can transmit the illness. Typically, people come into contact with infected particles through contaminated food or water. This is called the fecal-oral route of transmission.

This can happen because:

  • A person preparing or cooking food doesn’t wash their hands properly before doing so.
  • Food prep areas are contaminated with infected particles.
  • Food is grown or washed with contaminated water.

Being in close contact with someone infected and sharing cups, utensils, or food with them can also cause you to contract the stomach flu.

How to Prevent the Stomach Flu

Because the stomach flu is so contagious, it can be challenging to prevent. But a few strategies may help you avoid infection. 

Wash Your Hands Thoroughly

Whether you’re preparing or eating food, it’s essential to wash your hands thoroughly before doing so, especially if you’ve just gone to the bathroom.

Avoid Contact With Those Who Are Sick

Be wary of sharing food and utensils with someone who is sick with norovirus. If you have the stomach flu, you should avoid preparing food for other people until you’re no longer contagious. 

If someone with the illness soils their clothes or sheets with feces or vomit, make sure to put the dirty linens in the laundry. Put on gloves before handling the items, and use the hottest water setting for maximum virus-killing effect.

Practice Food Safety

Safely preparing food can help prevent instances of stomach flu. That means washing your hands before cooking and preparing food and always washing fresh produce before eating it. 

If you think you have contaminated food in your fridge, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend tossing it. And always clean and disinfect surfaces where you’ll be preparing food. 

Caring for Someone With Stomach Flu

If you or someone else you know has the stomach flu, make sure to keep your distance. Practice frequent handwashing and food safety to avoid spreading the disease once you’ve contracted it. 

How Long Does a Stomach Flu Last? 

Depending on which norovirus you’ve contracted, your symptoms can last anywhere from one to 10 days. The CDC notes that most people feel better in one to three days.

You’re most contagious when you’re having symptoms. So when you’re actively vomiting and having diarrhea, you should pay careful attention to personal hygiene.

You’re also still contagious right after your symptoms begin to subside—for up to two weeks. But contagiousness can vary depending on the type of norovirus you have.

How to Treat a Stomach Flu

No medication can quickly cure the stomach flu. Generally, treatment involves rest and making sure to replace lost fluids. Avoid caffeinated drinks. Sports drinks can be used, but you may want to get over-the-counter rehydration fluids (such as Pedialyte) that provide a full balance of minerals and nutrients that are lost with diarrhea and vomiting.

Antibiotics don’t work against the norovirus. 

When to See a Doctor 

If your symptoms worsen or aren’t going away, it might be time to see a doctor. If you’re experiencing dehydration and can't keep down fluids, you should also see a doctor.

Dehydration is especially important to watch for in older adults, people who have weakened immune systems, and young children. Signs of dehydration in babies and young children include having no tears when crying, having few wet diapers, and being listless.

Summary 

Norovirus or stomach flu is a contagious illness that you get by ingesting contaminated food or water. You can also get it from close contact with a sick person. Treatment for the stomach flu involves rest and hydration. 

To prevent getting it, you should practice good hygiene, food safety, and be careful when caring for someone sick with the stomach flu. 

A Word From Verywell 

To prevent catching or spreading the stomach flu, make sure to wash your hands often. It’s crucial to thoroughly wash your hands after using the bathroom, before and after eating, and after changing diapers. 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What kills the stomach virus?

    A 5% to 8% bleach solution can kill any virus particles left on surfaces.

  • How do you prevent vomiting during the stomach flu?

    Vomiting can be hard on the body. If your vomiting is severe and causing serious dehydration, a doctor may prescribe an antiemetic drug to keep you from throwing up. 

  • Can you catch the stomach flu from the air?

    Yes. You can breathe in airborne infected particles when a person vomits.

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7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Norovirus symptoms.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Norovirus transmission.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Norovirus prevention.

  4. San Francisco Department of Public Health. Viral gastroenteritis and norovirus.

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. How you treat norovirus.

  6. Washington State Department of Health. Norovirus.

  7. California Department of Health Services. Acute viral gastroenteritis (or "stomach flu").