Many newspapers are reporting on the Health Protection Agency’s latest figures on the ongoing outbreak of norovirus – the so-called winter vomiting disease. The data suggest that cases of the virus, which are usually highest after Christmas, are high for this time of year.
According to data available up to December 2 2012, there have been 2,313 confirmed laboratory reports (which is 64% higher than the same period in the last season). But the HPA estimates that for every confirmed report there are another 288 unreported cases.
This means that as many as 666,144 people could have been affected in this outbreak of norovirus. This number is expected to continue to rise.
What is norovirus?
Noroviruses are Britain’s most common cause of infectious gastroenteritis, also known as “winter vomiting disease” or “stomach flu”. Although not usually dangerous – the vast majority of sufferers recover after one or two days – the very young and the elderly are at risk of complications, such as dehydration, and may need hospital treatment.
It’s estimated that, typically, between 600,000 and 1 million people suffer from norovirus every year. That makes the infection – caused by one of a number of closely related viruses – the most common stomach infection in the UK.
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms of norovirus typically begin between 24 and 48 hours after infection with the virus. Sudden onset of nausea is usually the first sign of infection, followed by vomiting and watery diarrhoea. Some may also experience a mild fever, aching limbs and headaches. Symptoms typically disappear after a day or two.
How do people catch norovirus?
Through contact with an infected person, as well as contact with surfaces – such as door handles and tables – that are contaminated with the virus. It is also caught by consuming contaminated food or liquid. This means that outbreaks are particularly common within contained environments such as hospitals, schools and offices.
Once you have caught norovirus you are immune to the illness for around 14 weeks. After this time it is possible to be reinfected with the virus and suffer the same symptoms.
What can I do to stop myself catching norovirus?
It is not possible to guarantee that you will not catch norovirus. But good hygiene will lower your risk of catching or spreading norovirus. Wash your hands frequently, particularly after going to the toilet, and before eating or preparing food. Avoiding raw, unwashed foods during a norovirus outbreak can also lower your risk of infection.
What should I do if I have norovirus?
There is no specific treatment for norovirus illness, and you will have to let the illness run its course. Stay at home and drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration. That means regular sips of water or fruit juice, even if you are feeling sick. Adults can take rehydration drinks and anti-diarrhoea medicines available from pharmacies. Anti-diarrhoea medicines are not suitable for children.
To avoid infecting other people, wash your hands regularly. Stay at home for 48 hours after the last sign of symptoms, and do not prepare food for others for three days after the last sign of symptoms.
The vast majority of those infected make a full recovery within two days. But particular care must be taken with the very young and older people who catch norovirus, as they are at higher risk of dehydration.
Need help now?
If you’re suffering symptoms of norovirus, you can get advice now from NHS Direct 0845 4647.