What is norovirus? 

Norovirus is the leading cause of gastroenteritis, which is inflammation of the lining of the stomach and intestines that most often leads to vomiting and diarrhea. It’s estimated that a person will get norovirus about 5 times during their lifetime. 

What are the symptoms of norovirus? 

Regardless of any statistic, parents who have had norovirus or have had children infected with norovirus, understand just how unpleasant it can be. Within 24–48 hours of exposure to the virus, a child will start to show symptoms that typically last 1–3 days.

Most common symptoms:

  • stomach cramping
  • nausea
  • diarrhea
  • vomiting

Other symptoms may include:

  • fever
  • headache
  • body aches

Young children with norovirus are also at higher risk for dehydration. Parents of infants and toddlers should contact their health care provider right away if their child:

  • has less than six wet diapers a day
  • cries with few or no tears, or
  • has a sunken soft spot (fontanel) on their head 
  • dry mouth
  • sunken eyes
  • wrinkled skin
  • cool hands and feet

How do children get norovirus? 

A hallmark of the highly contagious norovirus is its ability to spread quickly among individuals in close contact, such as individuals in nursing homes, hospitals, and on cruise ships. It only takes a single exposure (someone sneezing, for example) for one person to infect another. Day care centers and schools are also epicenters for norovirus outbreaks, which typically occur in the U.S. from November to April.

How is norovirus treated? 

Unfortunately, there is no medication for norovirus, so this relentless “stomach bug” must simply run its course. Parents should encourage bed rest and keep sick children hydrated. Small sips of water are fine for children 1 year and older. If your child is under the age of 1, talk with his health care provider about giving him any water and how much. (For more on the use of water in small children read this.) Breastfed children should continue to nurse on request. Breast milk is considered a clear liquid, unlike infant formula which is considered a full liquid and is more likely to be restricted. 

Electrolytes, minerals necessary for keeping bodily fluids in balance, are lost when children have vomiting or diarrhea and need to be replaced. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) urges parents to discuss electrolyte replacement solutions (i.e., which one and how much your child needs) with their child’s pediatrician and provides a table outlining fluid requirements based on body weight. Breastfed children will generally remain hydrated with frequent breastfeeding alone, but your pediatrician may recommend additional electrolyte replacement fluids. 

How can norovirus be prevented? 

While there is no vaccine for norovirus, there are a few things parents and children can do to reduce their chances of getting sick. Handwashing is the first line of defense for keeping germ counts down. The CDC stresses the importance of washing hands with soap and water, especially after using the toilet, changing diapers, and before preparing or handling food. It's also recommended that infected adults avoid preparing food for their children until three days after their symptoms subside, when they are less likely to be contagious.

Once norovirus has entered your home, you’ll want to do everything you can to keep it from spreading to the rest of the family. Clean and disinfect any surfaces that may have been contaminated. Immediately wash clothes, towels, or sheets that come into contact with vomit or stool. 

When should I call a doctor? 

In most cases, children with norovirus do not need to be seen by their health care provider; the illness will usually run its course within a few days to a week. However, if you suspect your child is dehydrated, seek medical assistance immediately.

Last updated March 22, 2020

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