Featured Sunnybrook Academic Family Health Team Wellness

Is the ‘vomiting bug’ coming for me?

nauseous cartoon woman
Written by Dr. Sharon Domb

Q: I was babysitting my niece and nephew, and my niece was struck suddenly with a vomiting bug. Ick. All over the place. And all over me. It has since spread through their household. I feel like a sitting duck – Am I next? 

Well, I’ll give you the bad news first: these types of viruses are typically 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 this one (knock on wood).

“Winter vomiting bugs” (also referred to as the stomach flu) that cause quick onset vomiting and/or diarrhea are typically noroviruses. They usually 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 doesn’t wash their hands properly and then touches a shared surface, which you later touch and then touch your mouth). The viruses can also spread through airborne particles of vomit, and in the vomit itself. And, as you describe, this can get everywhere. If you are the person cleaning up the mess, it’s really hard not to get it. If you are cleaning up, touching the laundry, changing diapers, or comforting a sick little one, wash your hands…wash your hands a lot.

Routine handwashing is the number one way to prevent these types of illnesses from spreading. People, especially little kids, can carry and pass along the virus even if they don’t themselves have symptoms. Be a vigilant handwasher at all times of 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 ol’ fashioned soap and water whenever possible.

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. Wipe everywhere the affected person may have touched – door handles, light switches, toilet seat and flusher, taps, toys, phones, your kitchen. Many household cleaners aren’t great at killing the viruses, so look for something that’s bleach-based.

Once the virus enter your body, there’s nothing that you can do to stop it from materializing; no magic pill that will suppress it. If it strikes, be sure to rest, drink lots of water and avoid dairy if you’ve got diarrhea. 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.

One last thing, a common misconception is that the “flu shot” should protect against this nasty bug. Just a reminder, the flu shot offers protection against influenza, the respiratory flu – which hits with fever, aches, cough, sore throat, congestion, headache. Learn more about that here. There’s no vaccine for the norovirus – the best way we can stop its spread is by handwashing!


(Written as told to Alexis Dobranowski)


About the author

Dr. Sharon Domb

Dr. Sharon Domb is a family physician and member of Sunnybrook’s Academic Family Health Team.
If you have a general question for a family doctor, email us at questions@sunnybrook.ca. Please note that we can not dispense medical advice over email.