PORTSMOUTH, R.I. -- Disease surveillance systems at the Rhode Island Department of Health (RIDOH) have detected an increase in viral respiratory and gastrointestinal illness over the past several days. \n\nThis is not unexpected for this time of year; however, the Department is urging all Rhode Islanders to help prevent the spread of viral illnesses like the flu and norovirus by practicing good personal protection measures.\nTo help keep yourself and your family healthy this winter: \n\nWash your hands often with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and warm water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand gel. \n\nSneeze and cough into your elbow. \n\nIf you are sick, stay home from work, school, or childcare.\n\nIf you are a food handler, healthcare worker, or child care worker and are vomiting or have diarrhea, you must stay home until symptoms have stopped for at least 48 hours.\n\nDo not share utensils, water bottles, or other personal items. \n\nMany germs that cause viral illness are spread through saliva. \n\nWipe down common items like phones, keyboards, door knobs, and railings with a disinfectant that contains bleach. You can also use a solution of 5-25 tablespoons of bleach to one gallon of water.\n\nIf you have not already done so, get your annual flu shot! Flu activity is increasing in Rhode Island, and a flu shot is the easiest and most effective way to help prevent the flu.\n"While we expect to see an increase in viral illnesses at this time of year, we know hospital emergency departments are experiencing an increase in patients with respiratory and gastrointestinal illness," said Director of Health Nicole Alexander-Scott, MD, MPH. "It is important to protect yourself from getting sick whenever possible, by following the tips to best take care of you and your family this winter."\n\nMany viral illnesses need to run their course and require staying hydrated and getting plenty of rest. Antibiotics fight bacterial infections and will not cure illnesses caused by a virus. \n\nIf you are sick enough to seek medical care and your problem is not life-threatening or risking disability, you may be able to call your doctor or schedule an urgent visit for care instead of going directly to the emergency department.