Norovirus sounds ominous, but is actually the scientific name for what is better known as the winter vomiting bug. The virus is actually present throughout the year, but peaks during the winter months. Symptoms consist of vomiting and diarrhoea lasting only a couple of days in the vast majority of cases. The virus will usually clear up by itself, but there are groups that are at risk of more severe infections.
At Risk Groups
Those at more serious risk include very young children, the elderly, and those whose immune system is weakened. This can include people undergoing cancer treatment, those who have auto-immune diseases, or those who have had recent surgery for example.
In these cases, norovirus is hard to beat and can last for weeks or could even remain in their system for years. Although the diarrhoea and vomiting is unlikely to persist, the virus can prevent food absorption and weight gain. Severe vomiting and diarrhoea can cause other problems such as dehydration and reduced absorption of medication.
How is Norovirus spread?
Norovirus is very easy to catch and spreads when tiny particles of vomit or faeces are ingested. This can happen when people do not wash their hands and go on to touch things, including food. It can also be passed from person to person if you are with someone who is infected and is therefore breathing out particles containing the virus.
In other cases, norovirus can be carried in certain foods including oysters, so it is best to avoid eating raw and unwashed food.
The spread of norovirus can be prevented by regularly washing your hands and not relying of antibacterial gels which do not kill viruses.
Since the virus is so easily spread and can threaten at-risk groups, it is advisable that you do not visit your GP or A&E with symptoms of norovirus. The virus may linger on after symptoms have ceased and may still be able to spread, so it is best to stay away from GPs surgeries and anyone who may be at risk of complications for 48 hours after your illness. In the case of children, they should be kept home from school for these 48 hours.
What to do if you have Norovirus
In most cases the virus will clear up by itself and there is no need to visit the GP. You can often manage symptoms at home, all of which are outlined on the NHS website:
- Take paracetamol to reduce aches and pains and high temperatures
- Get plenty of rest
- If you can manage to eat, eat plain foods like toast, rice, pasta and soup
- Use rehydration drinks
- Adults can take medication to help reduce vomiting and diarrhoea
If you feel you are in need of further advice, contact NHS Direct on 111. They can advise you on the best self-treatment or medication, or if needed they may advise you on another course of action.
When to seek medical advice
Parents of very young children may need to seek medical advice if their child has been vomiting or passing watery diarrhoea six or more times in 24 hours. In this case the child may begin to suffer from dehydration. It is also important to seek medical advice if a baby or young child is less responsive, feverish, or has pale mottled skin.
In all cases, you must seek medical advice if you have blood in your stool, if your symptoms persist for more than 2-3 days, or if you have a serious underlying condition.
Even in these cases, you still should not visit your GP or A&E but should either contact NHS Direct or contact the GP surgery for a telephone consultation.