How to treat norovirus and how long the illness should last

insider@insider.com (Madeline Kennedy)
·6 mins read
The symptoms of norovirus include nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
The symptoms of norovirus include nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

George Mdivanian / EyeEm / Getty Images

  • Norovirus treatment includes drinking lots of fluids, eating bland foods, and taking anti-diarrheal medication.

  • There is no quick fix or antiviral for norovirus, but the illness should subside between one and three days.

  • You can prevent norovirus by washing your hands frequently with soap and water and cleaning shared areas with a disinfectant. 

  • This article was medically reviewed by Rudolph Bedford, MD, a gastroenterologist at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California.

  • Visit Insider's Health Reference library for more advice.

Norovirus, also called stomach flu or 24-hour bug, is a highly contagious virus that can cause severe diarrhea and vomiting. There are 20 million cases of norovirus each year in the US and it is the most common cause of food poisoning. You are more likely to get norovirus in the winter months, but it can strike any time of year.

There is no quick fix for norovirus, but while you wait for your body to fight off the infection, there are several methods you can use to help ease your symptoms.

Symptoms of norovirus 

Norovirus is easily spread and you can catch the virus from close contact with an infected person or having contaminated food or water. Symptoms come on quickly, generally starting between 12 and 48 hours after you are exposed to the virus.

Some of the most common norovirus symptoms include:

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • Watery diarrhea

  • Stomach pain

  • Mild fever

  • Muscle aches

Getting norovirus can be a very unpleasant experience, but most people recover on their own within 1 to 3 days. People who are immunocompromised, like children and the elderly, may take longer to recover. While there's no treatment for norovirus, here are a few ways you can ease your symptoms and feel better while you recover.

Drink lots of fluids

One of the best ways to support your body as it heals from norovirus is to stay hydrated. This is because when you are dehydrated, your immune system can become weakened and this could delay recovery.

"Vomiting and diarrhea can quickly result in dehydration, so drinking fluids is important," says Preeti N. Malani, MD, a professor and Chief Health Officer at the University of Michigan.

In some cases, your vomiting may be so severe that you can't keep enough liquid down to stay hydrated — this is especially a risk for young children, Malani says. Excessive vomiting and diarrhea cause you to lose electrolyte salts along with water, and you will need to replace both to stay properly hydrated.

Dinking small sips of an electrolyte rehydration fluid like Pedialyte may help you stay hydrated better than water. You can also sip fruit juice diluted with water, but it's best to avoid pure fruit juice or sports drinks, as too much sugar can worsen diarrhea.

Alcohol and caffeinated beverages should also be avoided, Malani says, as these are highly acidic and can irritate the lining of your stomach, worsening any sensations of nausea. 

Eat bland foods

If you are able to keep down liquids for about 4 hours, you can start to eat small portions of bland foods. Bland foods are foods that are easy to digest — this includes meals that are soft and low in fiber. A bland diet also cuts out spicy foods, as these can irritate the lining of your stomach and intestines and make diarrhea worse.

Some experts recommend following the Bananas, Rice, Applesauce, and Toast (BRAT) diet to start. These foods are high in starch and low in fiber, a combination that can help reduce diarrhea and make your stools firmer. However, it's not recommended that you follow this diet for more than a few days because it does not offer enough nutrients to be a sustainable eating plan

You can also add in other bland foods including:

  • Crackers

  • Potatoes

  • Soup broth

  • Baked chicken

  • Creamy peanut butter

Eating the wrong foods can trigger nausea and vomiting or make diarrhea worse. For example, fatty foods digest slowly, meaning they take longer to leave your stomach, which can make you nauseous. Sweet foods can also cause problems, as too much sugar can make diarrhea worse.

Some foods to avoid are:

  • Dairy products

  • Raw vegetables

  • Strong spices

  • Fried foods

  • Sweets

Anti-diarrheal medications

The frequent, watery diarrhea that comes with norovirus can be hard to cope with, but, "in general, antidiarrheal medications are not needed," says Malani. Norovirus generally clears up within a day or two, but if you are still having diarrhea, even while eating bland food, over the counter medication can help.

Anti-diarrheal medications work by slowing down your digestive system, giving your intestines more time to absorb water from your stool, firming it up. Some of the most common antidiarrheal drugs you can find at a pharmacy are

  • Loperamide (Imodium) 

  • Bismuth subsalicylate liquid (Pepto-Bismol)

  • Bismuth subsalicylate pills (Kaopectate). 

You can use antidiarrheal drugs temporarily, but "it's a good idea to check in with your doctor if these symptoms go on for more than a few days," Malani says.

How to prevent norovirus

Norovirus is an extremely contagious infection and you can catch it from contact with other people or from contaminated living spaces. Some of the most important steps you can take to prevent norovirus are:

  1. Wash your hands: "The most important way to prevent norovirus is by washing your hands frequently with soap and water," says Malani, adding that hand washing is more effective than an alcohol-based hand sanitizer to remove norovirus particles.

  2. Clean shared areas: If you share a space with others and one person becomes sick with norovirus, it is important to clean all surfaces with a disinfectant, Malani says, especially in the bathroom and kitchen. 

  3. Avoid contact with other people: Because norovirus is so contagious, you can still infect other people even after your symptoms have cleared up. "If you are ill, wait at least two days after recovery to prepare food or provide care for others," Malani says.

The bottom line 

Having norovirus can be a difficult experience, but the infection generally clears up on its own within a couple of days. Staying hydrated, taking anti-diarrheal medication, and easing slowly back into eating solid foods can help relieve your symptoms. If you aren't getting better or you develop more serious symptoms like bloody diarrhea, severe stomach pain, or high fever, get medical help as soon as possible.

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