Norovirus: symptoms and treatment for the winter vomiting bug

The Norovirus, also known as the winter vomiting bug, is one of the most common stomach bugs in the UK, affecting up to one million people each year.

Typical symptoms include a sudden feeling of sickness followed by projectile vomiting and severe diarrhoea, often coupled with other flu-like symptoms including headache and aching limbs. 

GP Dr Roger Henderson offers his expert advice on what to do if the bug strikes your family:

What is norovirus?

Norovirus is a viral infection which has some similarities to the flu. ‘The difference is that it tends to be seasonal – occurring mainly in autumn and winter – because the number of other general viruses (coughs, colds etcetera) that increase at this time also help to spread the existing norovirus pool,’ says Dr Henderson.

‘It is highly contagious, so if you have one or two people with norovirus they will potentially expose that to 10 or 20 people and so very quickly it can go exponential, meaning that within a matter of weeks you can have a significant norovirus spread.’

Who is at risk of norovirus?

Norovirus is spread easily through close contact with an infected person, contaminated surfaces or objects, or eating contaminated food. While anyone can contract the virus, some people are more at risk than others.

‘The most at-risk are the very young and very old because of the potential dehydration the virus can cause,’ says Dr Henderson. ‘The relatively small body size of babies and toddlers means that they can dehydrate far quicker than an adult and, while rarely fatal, it can sometimes mean hospital admission for young children for rehydration purposes.’

Mother and daughter with flu (Representative image)

© Getty Mother and daughter with flu (Representative image)

Norovirus and dehydration

Elderly people are at increased risk of contracting the norovirus due to the significant impact that dehydration can have on their physical and cognitive abilities. ‘Elderly people are actually slightly more of a problem when it comes to norovirus, especially if they have pre-existing issues, such as kidney problems, diabetes, cardiac disease,’ says Dr Henderson.

‘Significant dehydration can have a really big impact – especially with kidney problems,’ he adds. ‘They can get very dehydrated very quickly, get confused, fall, develop UTIs… It can affect them really badly.’

⚠️ Those with an impaired immune system – such as people undergoing chemotherapy treatment – are also at an increased risk from norovirus.

© Hero Images – Getty Images Hand washing

Norovirus recovery

If you do contract the norovirus, in order to prevent the spreading of the virus, it’s important that you let it run its course before returning to your usual routine.

‘The average amount of time that norovirus lasts in the UK is 1.2 days from exposure to presentation of symptoms, 24-72 hours to clear then 48 hours after symptoms have subsided before you can view yourself clear,’ says Dr Henderson.

‘The mistake that people often make is going back to work or similar the day after symptoms have subsided, when they could still have the virus.’

Should you visit your GP?

It’s vitally important that you do not visit the hospital or your GP with norovirus unless you feel it is an emergency, as there is nothing they can do for you and it encourages the spread of infection. However, the following high risk groups may need medical attention:

✔️ Norovirus in the elderly: if you have an elderly relative who has become very confused or you are worried about them, then do take them to a doctor. If you’re not sure, call the GP practice in advance and ask for advice.

✔️ Norovirus in children: with children, if they have persistent vomiting or diarrhoea for 24 hours, get very quiet and drowsy, are irritable all the time or start showing signs of a rash, then you should seek medical help. Generally speaking, any child under the age of five who contracts a sickness bug should be seen by a GP.

Doctor and patient talking

© Getty Doctor and patient talking

Norovirus treatment

Where possible, the best course of action to take with norovirus is simply to ‘ride it out’ at home. Here are some expert tips for managing the bug:

➡️ Stay hydrated: this is the most important course of action as you need to replace the fluids your body loses through vomiting and diarrhoea. Dioralyte provides fast and effective treatment of fluid and electrolyte loss, so make sure you stock up before the holidays.

➡️ Sip fluids to rehydrate: little and often is the key rather than drinking a lot all at once. This will help keep your stomach settled.

➡️ Avoid caffeine: it can irritate the gut and exacerbate symptoms. The same goes for alcohol.

➡️ Avoid rich, spicy food: well cooked lean white meat is absolutely fine. Again, little and often is key, and do not eat until you feel ready.

➡️ Take paracetamol: to help relieve headaches or other pains.


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