More than 650,000 people across the UK have this year been struck down with the vomiting bug norovirus, the Health Protection Agency (HPA) has revealed.
The highly contagious bug which causes vomiting and diarrhoea has peaked early this year, with the number of cases confirmed by laboratory reports this winter reaching 2,313 – 64 per cent higher than the 1,412 for the same period last year, and higher than any time in the previous five years.
The HPA is urging infected people to stay away from GP surgeries and local A&E units.
But what is norovirus, and what should you do if you contract it?
Norovirus is a highly contagious virus which can affect people of all ages. The most common stomach bug in the UK, it causes forceful vomiting and watery diarrhoea.
Is it dangerous?
Norovirus can be unpleasant but it’s not generally dangerous, and most people make a full recovery within a couple of days without having to see a doctor.
As there is no specific cure you have to let it run its course, but it should not last more than a couple of days.
Apart from the risk of dehydration the illness is not generally dangerous, and there are usually no long-lasting effects from having norovirus.
What are the symptoms?
The first sign is usually a sudden sick feeling, followed by forceful vomiting and watery diarrhoea.
Some people may also have a raised temperature (over 38C/100.4F); headaches; stomach cramps and aching limbs.
What should I do if I contract norovirus?
Keep hydrated: First and foremost drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration, as your body will be losing water and salts from vomiting and diarrhoea.
Suitable drinks include water, squashes and fruit juice. If you are finding it hard to keep down fluids, try to take small sips more frequently to keep yourself hydrated.
Infants and small children should receive frequent sips of water even if they vomit – a small amount of fluid is better than none. Avoid giving fruit juices and carbonated drinks to children under the age of five, as these can worsen diarrhoea.
Mild dehydration is common and can be easily reversed by drinking plenty of fluids. Symptoms include thirst; dizziness or lightheadedness; headaches; tiredness; dry mouth, lips and eyes; dark, concentrated urine and passing only small amounts of urine (fewer than three or four times a day).
You can buy sachets of rehydration salts from your pharmacy and add them to water. They provide the correct balance of water, salt and sugar for your body.
However, severe dehydration can be dangerous because if you don’t replace the lost fluid it will get worse and could lead to complications such as low blood pressure and kidney failure. It can even be fatal.
As well as severe thirst a severely dehydrated person may experience dry, wrinkled skin; an inability to urinate; irritability; sunken eyes; a weak pulse; a rapid heartbeat; cold hands and feet and seizures.
Dehydration is more of a risk in the very young and the elderly. Seek medical attention immediately if you think your child is becoming dehydrated.
Stay at home: Stay indoors and don’t go to the doctor – norovirus is contagious and there is nothing the doctor can do while you have it. But contact your GP to seek advice if your symptoms last longer than a few days or if you already have a serious illness.
Take paracetamol: If you have a fever or aches and pains.
What’s the treatment?
There’s no specific treatment for the virus. You don’t need to see a doctor.
Drink plenty of fluids (see above) and try to eat foods that are easy to digest, such as soup, rice, pasta and bread.
I’m pregnant and I have contracted norovirus – should I be concerned?
The NHS says: “Don’t worry if you are pregnant and you get norovirus: there is no risk to your unborn child.”
My baby has contracted the bug. What should I do?
– Babies should continue with their normal feeds. Do not stop giving your baby milk. In addition, give them oral rehydration fluids in between feeds or after each watery stool.
– Look out for symptoms of severe dehydration – diarrhoea and vomiting are more serious in babies than older children because babies can easily lose too much fluid from their bodies and become dehydrated.
They may become lethargic or irritable; have a dry mouth and loose pale or mottled skin; their eyes and fontanelle (the soft spot on the top of their head) may become sunken; they may not pass much urine and they may lose their appetite and have cold hands and feet.
If your baby becomes dehydrated they’ll need extra fluids. You can buy oral rehydration fluids from your local pharmacy or chemist, or get a prescription from your GP. Brands include Dioralyte, Electrolade and Rehidrat.
Contact your GP or health visitor urgently for advice if your baby has passed six or more diarrhoeal stools in the past 24 hours, or if your baby has vomited three times or more in the past 24 hours.
If your baby is unwell (is less responsive, feverish or is not passing much urine), or if vomiting has lasted more than a day, get your GP’s advice straightaway.
My child has contracted the bug. What should I do?
– Infants and small children should receive frequent sips of water even if they vomit, but avoid giving fruit juices and carbonated drinks to children under the age of five, as these can worsen diarrhoea.
Give your child plenty of clear drinks, but only give them food if they want it
– Anti-diarrhoeal drugs can be dangerous so don’t give these. Oral rehydration treatment can help
– Keep your child away from school or nursery for at least 48 hours after their last episode of diarrhoea or vomiting
– Children should not swim in a swimming pool for two weeks following the last episode of diarrhoea
– Make sure everyone in your family washes their hands regularly with soap and warm water to avoid spreading the infection
– Contact your GP if your child has diarrhoea and is vomiting at the same time; has diarrhoea that’s particularly watery, has blood in it or lasts for longer than two or three days; or has severe or continuous stomach ache
How can I avoid spreading norovirus to others?
Norovirus is spread particularly through the hands, contaminated food or drink or by contaminated surfaces or objects.
To avoid spreading the virus as much as possible, wash your hands frequently, don’t share towels and flannels and disinfect any surfaces you’ve touched.
Avoid direct contact with other people and don’t prepare food for others until at least 48 hours after your symptoms have gone. You may still be contagious even if you no longer have sickness or diarrhoea.
You should also wash any clothing or bedding that could have become contaminated with the virus. Wash the items separately and on a hot wash to ensure the virus is killed.
Flush away any infected faeces or vomit in the toilet, and clean the surrounding toilet area.
Avoid visiting hospitals if you have had the typical symptoms of norovirus in the past 48 hours.
How can I avoid contracting norovirus?
Good hygiene is crucial (see above).
Also avoid eating raw, unwashed produce and only eat oysters from a reliable source, as they have been known to carry norovirus.
How common is the virus?
It’s the most common stomach bug in the UK – between 600,000 and one million people in the UK catch it every year.
It’s often dubbed the winter vomiting bug because it’s more common in winter. However, the virus can be caught at any time of the year.