A highly contagious gastrointestinal illness is spreading across the Garden State.

The norovirus is also referred to as stomach flu or the winter vomiting virus, for a rather obvious reason.

“Norovirus causes an illness that can begin suddenly and usually it’s characterized by symptoms such as stomach cramps, vomiting, nausea and diarrhea. You definitely know when you have it,” said Dr. Tina Tan, the New Jersey state epidemiologist.

“Sometimes some people also have symptoms like low-grade fever, headache, body aches and just kind of exhaustion in general.”

She noted that, fortunately, most people get better within one to three days. But if you do get sick with this illness, watch out for dehydration.

“Because of the issue of vomiting, nausea, diarrhea, drinking a lot of fluids is important.”

Tan said individual cases of norovirus are not reportable, but health officials do keep track of outbreaks in different parts of the state.

“So far here in New Jersey for this winter, between December and January of this year, we’ve seen about 60 outbreaks of norovirus illness.”

She said the virus is spread from one person to another but can also be transmitted through food in a restaurant or cafeteria.

“A sick food handler can easily contaminate food that she or he is handling. Many of those eating contaminated food may become ill and outbreaks may result,” she said.

Tan stressed if you come down with norovirus “and you become sick, you vomit or you have diarrhea in certain areas, it’s important to really clean and disinfect those contaminated surfaces.”

She said you’ll need to use bleach-based cleaners, not just soap and water.

“Hand hygiene is always an important practice that people should follow regardless whether it’s norovirus illness or the flu or the common cold.”

In other words, to avoid illness it’s a good idea to frequently wash your hands, “especially after you go to the bathroom or you change diapers or you’re in contact with ill individuals.”

She also stressed if you’re sick or think you might be sick with the norovirus you should not be preparing food for anybody else.

“You’ve got to wait a couple of days after you recover from the illness before you prepare food,” she said.

Also, even if you’re not sick, “it’s important that you carefully wash fruits and vegetables and cook shellfish thoroughly before you eat them because a lot of times norovirus can be a contamination issue for some of these foods.”

She also pointed out it’s important to wash clothing and linens if you’ve come down with norovirus.

“If they become contaminated with vomit or stool, just make sure you remove them right away, wash them in the laundry just to avoid the spread of the norovirus itself,” she said.

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