What is norovirus?
It’s known by a number of names – norovirus; winter sickness or vomiting bug or more simply as diarrhoea and vomiting or D&V. But whatever its name, it’s an unpleasant, although not usually a serious illness, which can – and unfortunately does – wreak havoc on our hospitals every year.
You’ll have seen the headlines as soon as the weather starts to get a bit colder: “Winter stomach bug closes hospital ward”; or “Visitors told to stay away as winter bug spreads”. Norovirus is a highly-infectious illness and it regularly shuts hospital beds, bays and even whole wards as patients and staff fall ill.
It’s never an easy decision to have to shut a hospital ward, especially during the winter months when more people tend to be ill and need to be admitted, but when faced with norovirus – and other similar fast-spreading gastrointestinal illnesses – it’s often the only choice we have to contain it and prevent it spreading even further.
When we’re caring for patients with norovirus – and when we know that there’s norovirus circulating in the community – we ask people to work with us to help us prevent its further spread, which is why you’ll see signs up on the doors to hospital wards and departments like A&E and at GP surgeries asking you not to come in if you’ve had symptoms of diarrhoea or vomiting in the past 72 hours.
We want to do everything we can to keep norovirus out of our hospitals and away from very sick and vulnerable patients and we need your help to do that.
So exactly what is norovirus? It’s the most common stomach bug in the UK and it affects people of all ages. There’s no specific cure so you have to let it run its course, but it should not last more than a couple of days – the infectious period usually lasts between 12 to 48 hours.
Having norovirus can be an unpleasant experience, but it’s not generally dangerous and most people make a full recovery within a couple of days, without having to see a doctor.
Noroviruses are a group of viruses that are the most common cause of stomach bugs (gastroenteritis) in the UK. They are also known as small round structured viruses or Norwalk-like viruses.
Between 600,000 and a million people in the UK catch norovirus every year. Although it’s also known as the winter vomiting bug because the illness is more common in winter, it can be caught at any time of the year.
As an organisation, we only keep data on outbreaks of norovirus (and suspected norovirus) in our hospitals; we don’t have information about infections in the wider community. Last year across Cwm Taf Health Board, there were 29 outbreaks of norovirus; the majority were in the winter months. Further information is available in our Annual Quality Statement.
What are the symptoms of norovirus?
The first sign of norovirus is usually a sudden sick feeling followed by forceful vomiting and watery diarrhoea. Some people will also have a raised temperature (over 38°C/100.4F), headaches, painful stomach cramps and aching limbs.
What should I do if I get norovirus?
There is no cure for norovirus but if you do get it you should drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration. You can take paracetamol to treat any fever or aches and pains. If you feel like eating, eat foods that are easy to digest.
Stay at home and don’t go to the doctor because norovirus is contagious and there is nothing the doctor can do while you have it. However, contact your GP to seek advice if your symptoms last longer than a few days, if you develop symptoms of severe dehydration or if you already have a serious illness.
Extra care should be taken to prevent babies and small children who are vomiting or have diarrhoea from dehydrating, by giving them plenty of fluids. Babies and young children can still drink milk.
If you are pregnant and you get norovirus there is no risk to your unborn child.
Norovirus can be spread very easily through contact with an infected person, especially through their hands. You can also catch it through contaminated food or drink or by touching contaminated surfaces or objects.
How can I stop getting norovirus?
The following measures should help prevent the virus from spreading further:•Wash your hands frequently.
- Do not share towels and flannels.
- Disinfect any surfaces that an infected person has touched.
Outbreaks in busy places such as hospitals, nursing homes and schools are common because the virus can survive for several days on surfaces or objects touched by an infected person.
If you have norovirus, you may continue to be infectious for a short period after symptoms stop, so you should avoid food preparation and direct contact with other people for at least 48 hours after your symptoms have gone.
Getting norovirus cannot always be avoided, but good hygiene can help to limit the virus spreading.
NHS Choices and NHS Direct Wales recommend the following tips to help stop the virus spreading:
- Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly with soap and water, particularly after using the toilet and before preparing food
- Do not share towels and flannels
- Disinfect any surfaces or objects that could be contaminated with the virus. It is best to use a bleach-based household cleaner
- Wash any clothing or bedding that could have become contaminated with the virus. Wash the items separately and on a hot wash to ensure that the virus is killed
- Flush away any infected faeces or vomit in the toilet and clean the surrounding toilet area
- Avoid eating raw, unwashed produce and only eat oysters from a reliable source. Oysters have been known to carry norovirus.
If you have norovirus, avoid direct contact with other people or preparing food for others, until at least 48 hours after your symptoms have gone. You may still be contagious, even though you no longer have sickness or diarrhoea.
Avoid visiting hospitals if you have had the typical symptoms of norovirus in the past 72 hours. Norovirus is more serious and even more easily spread among people who are already ill.
Please help us to stop norovirus spreading in our hospitals this winter.