Protect yourself from extremely contagious norovirus, a nasty stomach bug

Unfortunately hand sanitizer can't kill norovirus, the unpleasant and highly contagious stomach bug. Wash your hands. Avoid other people. And let norovirus run its course.
Jan. 9, 2024
Norovirus is extremely contagious and often sickens many members of families. Norovirus outbreaks are common after holidays, during back-to-school seasons, on cruises and in long-term care facilities. Hand sanitizer won't kill the virus. Photo: Getty Images.
Norovirus is extremely contagious and often sickens many members of families. Washing hands well and using bleach is key because hand sanitizer doesn’t kill norovirus. Photo: Getty Images.

Outbreaks of norovirus, an extremely contagious stomach bug, are high right now.

“’Tis the season for germs,” said Dr. Michelle Barron, UCHealth’s senior medical director of infection prevention and control.

Norovirus cases typically spike during times of the year when adults and kids spend time together in crowded settings: like during and after the holidays, whenever kids head back to school and frequently on cruise ships where travelers can unknowingly pass norovirus to hundreds of others through close contact and shared utensils at buffets.

So, what is norovirus?

Norovirus is the most common culprit for stomach bugs, but just like flu viruses, there are many types of norovirus. And, unlike the flu, there’s no vaccine.

“It’s a very infectious virus that causes pretty severe diarrhea and vomiting for 24 to 36 hours. If anybody in your household gets it, it’s just so infectious that everyone around you is likely to get it,” Barron said.

Symptoms from food poisoning, in contrast, usually last just a couple of hours. And food poisoning typically stems from bacteria that have developed in food, like mayonnaise dishes that need to remain cold and have sat out in the sun too long.

Norovirus, one the other hand, comes from a virus.

If you or your family members have had it — and most of us have — you know the drill.

Your toddler might wake in the night, say she has a tummy ache and moments later, vomit all over you and her bed. Wearily, you get her cleaned up and settled, get a load of laundry going and try to catch an hour or two of sleep only to hear next from her older brother, who joins his sister and barely makes it to the bathroom before he, too, is throwing up.

Then, a day or two later, still bleary-eyed from caring for sick kids, you and your spouse or partner succumb to the same vicious stomach bug and can barely hold down any liquids, much less care for anyone else.

“The terrible thing about norovirus is that by the time you figure out what it is, often it’s too late. Everybody has been exposed, and everyone is dealing with it,” said Barron, who is one of Colorado’s top infectious disease experts and is also a professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine on the Anschutz Medical Campus.

If one member of your family gets sick with norovirus, others are likely to get it too unless you isolate the sick person, wash your hands obsessively with soap and water and clean your home thoroughly.

Barron has two words of advice when it comes to dealing with norovirus: “use bleach.”

Why? It’s surprising, but hand sanitizer won’t protect you from norovirus. 

How to prevent norovirus

  • Hand sanitizer doesn’t kill the virus.
  • Wash hands frequently with soap and warm or hot water.
  • Use detergents with bleach to clean and disinfect surfaces.

What causes norovirus?

According to experts at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), you can get norovirus from:

  • Having direct contact with an infected person.
  • Consuming contaminated food or water.
  • Touching contaminated surfaces and then putting your unwashed hands in your mouth.


  • Nausea.
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Dizziness and lack of urination can be signs of severe dehydration.


  • No medication can halt the symptoms.
  • Consume plenty of fluids.
  • Try to eat bland foods like crackers.

When you need to see a doctor:

  • If a baby or child becomes lethargic, has dry diapers and can’t consume any liquids, call your doctor right away.
  • Most older children and adults don’t need to see a doctor for norovirus.
  • As long as the sick person can stay hydrated, the symptoms should pass with time.
  • If vomiting and diarrhea last longer than 36 hours or if people can’t hold down any liquids and stop urinating, they may need fluids in a hospital.


Why is norovirus so contagious? And why do you need to use bleach to disinfect against norovirus?

Norovirus is an extremely crafty bug and each particle comes with its own protective shield of sorts to help it survive as long as possible.

“Alcohol can’t break the shield. A detergent like soap can most of the time,” said

“Be really diligent with hand washing. Make sure you’re washing your hands really well with soap and water and that you’re cleaning surfaces with bleach. Also, be very conscious about food preparation,” said Barron.

She said hand sanitizers, which contain alcohol, can be useful to protect people from other illnesses like COVID-19, colds and the flu. So, it’s fine to keep hand sanitizer handy.

But, if you, your children or your co-workers are dealing with stomach illnesses, you should stay home so you don’t spread the virus and wash your hands very frequently with good old soap and warm water.

What cleaning agents should I use to prevent norovirus?

Barron recommends cleaning surfaces as often as possible with bleach-based detergents, which can kill norovirus.

While Barron protects herself well from infectious diseases, she has gotten norovirus herself. Once, when she was traveling, she grabbed a sandwich at the airport to eat on the plane. A little while later, she started feeling lousy. At first, like many people suffering from stomach viruses, she thought she had food poisoning.

But, once she returned home and was stuck in the bathroom for about 24 hours, she realized that she was suffering from norovirus instead.

Unfortunately, people who are infected with norovirus sometimes don’t know they have it until they get sick. In the meantime, they can touch food or surfaces in schools like desks and notebooks. The virus stays alive on the surface, then when other people touch the same spot, the infection spreads.

“It only takes one or two particles of this virus to make you sick,” Barron said.

According to the CDC, each person with norovirus can shed billions of particles of the disease.

So, once you get norovirus, all you can do is let the virus run its course and try to protect people around you from getting sick.

“In terms of what to do to treat it, the No. 1 thing is to stay home. There’s no treatment. You have to let it run its course,” Barron said.

Barron said norovirus is common when people are gathering in close quarters and are eating together.

She encourages hosts to be sure to use utensils to serve food so people don’t accidentally spread illnesses with their hands.

Food on cruise ships can serve as a source of infection.

“Cruises have these huge buffets. Everyone goes and samples the food. Hands and foods can be infected. And, once you ingest the virus, you’re going to get sick,” Barron said.

About the author

Katie Kerwin McCrimmon is a proud Colorado native. She attended Colorado College, thanks to a merit scholarship from the Boettcher Foundation, and worked as a park ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park during summer breaks from college. She is also a storyteller. She loves getting to know UCHealth patients and providers and sharing their inspiring stories.

Katie spent years working as a journalist at the Rocky Mountain News and was a finalist with a team of reporters for the Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of a deadly wildfire in Glenwood Springs in 1994. Katie was the first reporter in the U.S. to track down and interview survivors of the tragic blaze, which left 14 firefighters dead.

She covered an array of beats over the years, including the environment, politics, education and criminal justice. She also loved covering stories in Congress and at the U.S. Supreme Court during a stint as the Rocky’s reporter in Washington, D.C.

Katie then worked as a reporter for an online health news site before joining the UCHealth team in 2017.

Katie and her husband Cyrus, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer, have three children. The family loves traveling together anywhere from Glacier National Park to Cuba.