It’s super contagious, makes you feel awful, and it’s on the increase. We’re talking about norovirus, the “winter vomiting bug”. Cases of the virus have been rising in recent weeks, in both the US and the UK. But what exactly is it – and, more importantly, how can you minimize your chances of catching it?
What is norovirus?
Noroviruses are a group of non-enveloped, single-stranded RNA viruses. There are 48 known genotypes of norovirus, split into 10 broad groups, but the one that most commonly causes disease is the GII.4 genotype.
Although you may develop some immunity after infection, this may not protect you from other types of the virus, and it’s also not known how long immunity lasts. Because of this, and because there are so many different types of this virus in circulation, multiple infections are possible – we hate to be the bearers of bad news, but on average people will contract the disease five times during their lifetime.
There’s no vaccine for norovirus, but research into this is continuing since the World Health Organization deemed it a high priority in 2016. For now, if you are unfortunate enough to come down with an infection, there’s not a lot you can do other than ride it out.
What are the symptoms of norovirus?
Norovirus causes acute gastroenteritis. The most common symptoms are diarrhea and vomiting, which can be severe. Some people may also experience other symptoms, such as a fever or headache. You often hear norovirus referred to as the “stomach flu”, but it’s actually not related to the flu virus at all.
Symptoms normally start 12-48 hours after exposure, and thankfully they typically only last between one and three days. However, during that time, it’s safe to say that it can make you feel pretty darn awful.
For most people, there are no serious risks of complications from norovirus. However, it is important to watch out for dehydration, particularly in children and the elderly. It’s important to drink plenty of fluids while the illness runs its course.
How do you prevent it?
Norovirus is extremely infectious – just a few viral particles are enough to pass the disease on. You can catch it through close contact with someone who is infected, as well as from contaminated surfaces and food. People are most infectious when they have symptoms and in the first few days afterward, but there’s some evidence to suggest that you can continue to spread the virus for a couple of weeks after recovery.
The best way to prevent the spread of the disease is by practicing good hygiene. Unfortunately, all of that alcohol hand sanitizer you stocked up on during the COVID-19 pandemic is not much use against this particular virus, so good old soap and water is your best bet. You should wash your hands thoroughly (we’ve had a lot of practice at that by now!) and often.
Surfaces should be cleaned with a bleach-based solution – don’t forget the less obvious ones, like door handles. Any clothes or bedsheets that could be contaminated should be washed at 60°C (140°F).
If you do get sick, you should stay home until you have been symptom-free for 48 hours. That goes for children, too – they should be kept away from school or kindergarten until they’re 48 hours in the clear. You should also not visit people in hospitals or care homes during this time – norovirus outbreaks are a major problem in these settings. You should also avoid preparing food for anyone else until you have recovered.
The unfortunate truth is that if you do catch norovirus, you’re in for a rough couple of days. But hopefully, by following this advice, you might just be able to dodge it – or at least try and make sure the chain of transmission stops with you.
All “explainer” articles are confirmed by fact checkers to be correct at time of publishing. Text, images, and links may be edited, removed, or added to at a later date to keep information current.