How to avoid the winter vomiting bug

I was babysitting my niece and nephew one recent Saturday night (#auntoftheyear) and putting them to bed, when my niece got that look just out of the blue. You know, that stricken-glassy-eyed-I-think-I’m-going-to-barf look. And barf she did. All over her bed, herself and me.

The vomiting bug then ripped through their household. I spent the week in fear — was it coming for me next?

I reached out to Dr. Sharon Domb, family physician on Sunnybrook’s Academic Family Health Team, for some facts about this common (and commonly misunderstood) ailment.

These types of viruses typically are very highly contagious and spread very easily through families and households.

The good news is if it’s been over three days since your exposure, you have likely dodged it (knock on wood).

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“Winter vomiting bugs” (often called the stomach flu) that cause quick onset vomiting and/or diarrhea are typically noroviruses, Domb said. They typically take one to three days to incubate (but can strike even faster) and often seem to come out of nowhere, and usually only last about 24 hours.

“These viruses are spread in droplet form, most often on the fecal-oral route — think, someone goes to the washroom and then doesn’t wash their hands properly and then touches a shared surface,” Domb said. “The viruses can also spread through airborne particles of vomit, and in the vomit itself. If you are the person cleaning up the mess, it’s really hard not to get it.”

If you are cleaning up barf, touching the laundry, changing diapers, or comforting a sick little one, wash your hands. Wash your hands a lot.

“Routine hand washing is the number 1 way to prevent these types of illnesses from spreading,” Domb said. “People, especially little kids, can carry and pass along the virus even if they don’t themselves have symptoms.”

We should all be vigilant hand washers throughout the year, but it’s particularly important if the vomiting bug is in your home or going around your child’s school.

“Some research suggests alcohol-based hand sanitizers don’t kill these viruses, so go for good old-fashioned soap and water whenever possible,” Domb added.

These kinds of viruses also survive on surfaces for a long time.

“Let’s say the infected person uses the washroom, touches the tap to turn it on and then you touch the tap, then you put in your contact lenses or floss your teeth, you are likely exposing yourself to the virus.”

So, if someone in your family has thrown up, get cleaning. And fast. Wipe everywhere the affected person may have touched: door handles, light switches, toilet seat and flusher, taps, toys, phones, your kitchen. Look for a cleanser that’s bleach-based since many household cleaners aren’t great at killing the viruses.

Flu shot doesn’t prevent vomiting bug

Once you’ve been exposed, there’s nothing that you can do to prevent the virus from materializing. You just have to wait and see. (I never did get it from my sister’s family.)

“If it strikes, be sure to rest, drink lots of water and avoid dairy, if you’ve got diarrhea,” Domb said. “Wash your hands with soap and water every time you use the washroom or touch your mouth or nose, and wipe down the surfaces in your home.”

Just one last thing to remember: don’t confuse the stomach flu with the respiratory flu. There’s a misconception that the flu shot should protect against this nasty vomiting bug. No. The flu shot offers protection against influenza, the respiratory flu — which hits with fever, aches, cough, sore throat, congestion, headache and can be deadly for the elderly, young children and the immunocompromised.

There’s no vaccine for the norovirus. The best way we can stop its spread is by hand washing!