young boy holding his kneesIt seems like everyone knows someone who’s had the stomach bug this winter. “We think of this time of year mainly as the season for respiratory illnesses, but it’s actually high time for the spread of GI viruses,” says Julia Shaklee Sammons, MD, MSCE, medical director of the Department of Infection Prevention and Control at CHOP. The main reason: We’re all cooped up inside, keeping us in close contact with one another — and those nasty viruses.

Once the stomach bug hits your family, you never want to get it again. But can you actually avoid a norovirus infection next year? And if your kid has managed to dodge the nasty virus half his classmates got this year, can your family really get through the spring without getting sick?

We asked Dr. Sammons for her best tips on how to prevent the spread of norovirus. (Newsflash: Your whole family doesn’t have to get it — really!) Plus, she offers advice on caring for a child who does get sick.

Wash, wash, wash!

First, a few gross facts: “Norovirus, which is by far the most common stomach bug, is spread when stool or vomit from an infected person accidentally gets in your mouth,” says Dr. Sammons. “We shed billions of norovirus particles in our stool and vomit when we’re sick, and it takes less than 100 particles for the virus to infect someone else.” That means touching a surface, object or a piece of food with even a small amount of a virus on it can easily spread if your child touches it and then puts his fingers in his mouth. Yuck!

Proper hand hygiene is key to stopping the spread of stomach bugs. Remind everyone in your family about the two most important times to wash up with soap and water:

  • After using the bathroom or changing diapers
  • Before eating or handling food

Hand sanitizer can be used throughout the day, but it shouldn’t take the place of hand washing before eating or after using the bathroom.

It’s also important to clean surfaces more frequently, especially if someone was recently sick in your home. “Noroviruses can live on surfaces and objects for days to weeks,” warns Dr. Sammons. That means it’s important to clean kitchen counter tops with soap and water and wipe family room surfaces and toys with a disinfecting wipe. “Use a bleach-containing solution when cleaning up vomit and diarrhea, and launder contaminated clothes immediately,” adds Dr. Sammons.

Caring for a child with the stomach bug

Thankfully, most norovirus infections only last about a day or two (even though caring for a kid who’s constantly throwing up or running to the bathroom can make those two days feel much longer!). Plus, the primary treatment for a child with a GI virus focuses on rehydration, which you can do at home.

While kids are sick, it’s important to:

  • Keep them hydrated. An infant can continue to breastfeed or drink formula. An older child can drink clear liquids as well as an over-the-counter oral rehydration fluid to replace key electrolytes.
  • Make sure they’re urinating. Babies should continue having close to the usual number of wet diapers. If that number drops in the space of a few hours, this is the earliest sign of dehydration.
  • Watch for behavior clues that indicate dehydration. A baby or older child who seems more drowsy than usual may be suffering the early signs of dehydration; unusual sleepiness is a later sign.

Wondering when it’s time to take your child in for care? Or whether your child has something other than a stomach virus? Dr. Sammons says to call your pediatrician if:

  • Diarrhea or vomiting continues to get worse.
  • Your child also has a fever that lasts more than three days.
  • Your child has not urinated at least once during every eight- to 12-hour period.
  • Your child's lips and mouth look dry.
  • Your child has no tears when crying.
  • You see blood in your child's stool.
  • Your child has severe abdominal (belly) pain.
  • Your child is very sleepy all the time.
  • You have any concerns.

These symptoms could indicate severe dehydration that needs to be treated with intravenous (IV) fluids, or a bacterial or other GI illness that requires care beyond rehydration.

“Although noroviruses are common this time of year, infection usually does not lead to any long-term effects,” says Dr. Sammons. “However, it’s important to trust your gut — if your child is showing any signs of dehydration or if you have any other concerns, don’t hesitate to contact your doctor.”