What to do if you catch norovirus – the winter vomiting bug

Clinical Director Primary Care at Bupa UK
02 November 2016

The winter vomiting bug, also known as norovirus, is the most common stomach bug in the UK.

Here we look at who can get it, how you get it and what to do if you’re unlucky enough to catch the bug.

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Who can get the winter vomiting bug?

Unfortunately, no matter what your age or how healthy you are, anyone can get the winter vomiting bug. You’ll be immune for a short while, but this won’t last. So there is a chance you might be unlucky enough to get it more than once in your life.

For most people, having the winter vomiting bug is unpleasant but generally mild. You’ll usually make a full recovery in one to two days. However, for vulnerable people – babies, older people and those with existing health problems – it can be more serious. In fact, around 3,000 people a year are admitted to hospital with norovirus in England.

Although it’s called the ‘winter’ vomiting bug, you can get it at any time of the year. However, it’s much more common during the colder, winter months (November to April).

How could I catch the winter vomiting bug?

The winter vomiting bug is highly contagious, so you can both catch it and pass it on to others very easily. It can spread very quickly in closed environments, such as hospitals, schools and care homes. You can become infected with norovirus by accidentally getting particles of the virus in your mouth and ingesting it. These particles are from faeces or vomit from infected people. This can happen via contaminated food and water, or by touching contaminated surfaces, such as door handles and cutlery.

What are the symptoms of the winter vomiting bug?

Norovirus causes gastroenteritis. Most people tend to suddenly feel nauseous, projectile vomit and have watery diarrhoea. Tummy cramps are also common and you may have a fever.

How long does it last?

Though it’s very unpleasant, the good news is that the bug is short-lived and should be out of your system within one to two days.

If you think you’ve caught the winter vomiting bug, it’s important not to visit hospitals, your GP surgery, friends, or relatives in care homes or other public spaces. This is because you could easily spread the infection to other people, and potentially to people who already have poor health. However, if your symptoms carry on for more than three or four days, or you already have a serious illness, then phone your GP. They’ll be able to give you advice about what to do and assess if you need further examination.

Is there a treatment for the winter vomiting bug?

There’s no specific medicine to treat the winter vomiting bug and antibiotics won’t work because it’s a viral infection, not a bacterial one. The best thing you can do is to help relieve your symptoms and replace the fluid you’re losing through vomiting and diarrhoea.

What should I do if I catch the winter vomiting bug?

If you catch the winter vomiting bug, here are some top tips on looking after yourself and getting on the road to recovery.

  • Don’t spread it. The winter vomiting bug is highly contagious so you don’t want to risk passing it on to others, especially vulnerable people. Don’t visit your GP surgery, hospital, friends, or relatives in care homes.
  • Stay at home. There is no medicine to treat the winter vomiting bug, so for most people, there will be little your GP can do. It usually only lasts a couple of days, so it’s best to stay in the comfort of your own home, ride it out and rest. This will also reduce the risk of spreading it to others.
  • Drink enough fluids. When you have symptoms such as vomiting and diarrhoea, you need to replace the fluids you’re losing in order to prevent dehydration. The best thing you can do is to drink water regularly, or you can buy rehydration solutions over the counter from your pharmacy. This is a powder that is made up into a solution by adding water. It contains the right balance of sugars and salts for your body to encourage rehydration. Ask someone to pick these up for you to help prevent spreading the virus.
  • Over-the-counter medicines can be useful. To help reduce or relieve symptoms, such as fever or stomach aches and pains, over-the-counter painkillers such as paracetamol may help.
  • Wash your hands. Thoroughly washing your hands, especially after going to the toilet or before preparing food, is essential to prevent spreading the illness to others. Don’t rely on alcohol gels (hand sanitisers), as these do not kill norovirus – always wash your hands with warm water and soap when you can.
  • Disinfect surfaces. Thoroughly clean hard surfaces, such as door handles, taps and kitchen surfaces, with detergents and disinfectant. This will reduce the risk of others coming into contact with the virus. Don’t prepare food for other people until you’re fully recovered – at least 48 hours after your symptoms have gone away.
  • If you become severely dehydrated, you may need hospital treatment with fluids given through a vein in your arm (an intravenous drip). If you think you or someone you’re caring for is severely dehydrated, call your GP surgery or NHS111.

Dr Luke James
Clinical Director Primary Care at Bupa UK

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