WHEELING - If vomiting, diarrhea, stomach cramps and a low-grade fever sound like familiar symptoms, you might just have the norovirus.
While there is no outbreak occurring, the norovirus appears to be making its way through the Ohio Valley, said Dr. William Mercer, Wheeling-Ohio County health officer. Often referred to as the gastrointestinal or stomach flu, norovirus symptoms usually last one to two days. Food poisoning or salmonella poisoning has similar symptoms with the exception of bloody stool.
"There's no specific outbreak, but we are seeing it in the community," Mercer said. "There's no easy test like there is for strep throat. ... It has to be sent to the state lab."
Mercer said in his own private practice he's had a couple patients go to the emergency room because they were dehydrated from the stomach flu. They most likely have norovirus because it is the most common gastrointestinal flu, which is the inflammation of the intestines and stomach.
He said while most healthy people recover within a couple days, sometimes the elderly or people with underlying medical conditions are hit harder. About 800 people die from the virus annually. It is recommended that food handlers not prepare food while they are ill and for three days after their symptoms subside to avoid spreading the virus.
"Norovirus is a virus, so antibiotics don't help," Mercer said.
To help prevent its spread, people should wash their hands frequently. And if one does contract the illness, they should avoid taking anti-diarrhea medicine.
"It might keep it in your system longer," he said.
In contrast, the respiratory flu, often referred to as the seasonal flu, typically includes cough, headache, sore throat, stuffy nose, body aches and fever. A vaccine is produced annually to help fight off the respiratory flu. But, to date, no vaccine has been developed for the stomach flu.
"If you have the stomach flu or the flu, avoid visiting the hospital or nursing home. Please don't go visit," Mercer said.
Mercer said viruses spread quickly in such facilities and "the next thing you know we have to shut them down." The best defense against either flu is to wash one's hands frequently.