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What to do if you catch the winter vomiting bug

Have sickness and diarrhoea knocked you for six this winter? If so, you’re not alone – 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 struck down by the bug.

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  • Who can get the winter vomiting bug? 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. Although you will build immunity to the virus after having it, this only usually lasts between four and eight years. Therefore, you might even be unlucky enough to get it multiple times in your life.

    For most people, having the winter vomiting bug is unpleasant but generally mild. You will usually make a full recovery in two to three 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.

  • How can I catch the winter vomiting bug? How can 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? What are the symptoms of the winter vomiting bug?

    Norovirus causes inflammation of your stomach or intestines, or both. This is called acute gastroenteritis. As well as sudden vomiting and diarrhoea, you may have stomach pain, a headache, fever or feel tired. Although unpleasant enough, the good news is that the bug is short-lived and should be out of your system within two or three days.

    If you think you’ve caught the winter vomiting bug, it’s important not to visit hospitals, your GP surgery or 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 persist for more than three or four days, or you already have a serious illness, then phone your GP. He or she will be able to give you advice about what to do and assess if you need further examination.

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  • Is there a treatment for the winter vomiting bug? 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 infection. The best 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? 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 to prevent spreading the illness.
    • Stay at home. There is no medicine to treat the winter vomiting bug, so for most people, there will be little your GP or nurse can do. It usually only lasts two to three days, so it’s best to stay in the comfort of your own home, ride it out and rest. This, in turn, also reduces 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 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 headache, fever or stomach aches and pains, over-the-counter painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen can be helpful.
    • 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. Always wash your hands with soap and warm water. Do not rely on alcohol gels (hand sanitisers), as these do not kill norovirus – always opt for 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. Do not prepare food for other people until you’re fully recovered.
    • Use an isolated toilet. If possible, try to use a separate toilet to the rest of the people you live with. Sharing the same toilet increases the risk of spreading it to other members of your family, friends or housemates.

    If you become severely dehydrated, you may require hospitalisation for 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.

  • Resources Resources

    Further information


    • Stop norovirus spreading this winter. Health Protection Agency (HPA)., published October 2013
    • Simmons K, Gambhir M, Leon J, et al. Duration of immunity to norovirus gastroenteritis. Emerg Infect Dis 2013; 19(8). doi:10.3201/eid1908.130472
    • Norovirus. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention., reviewed July 2013
    • Key facts about norovirus., published 30 January 2012
    • Guidelines for the management of norovirus outbreaks in acute and community health and social care settings. Health Protection Agency (HPA)., published March 2012
    • Norovirus. Health Protection Agency (HPA)., accessed 7 January 2014
    • Analgesia – mild-to-moderate pain. NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries., published August 2010
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