Norovirus, better known as the winter vomiting bug, is the most common stomach bug in Ireland, affecting people of all ages.
The virus, which is highly contagious, causes vomiting and diarrhoea. As there is no specific cure, you have to let it run its course, but it should not last more than a couple of days. If you get norovirus, make sure you drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration and practise good hygiene to help prevent it from spreading.
Norovirus can be unpleasant to experience, but it's not generally dangerous and most people make a full recovery within a couple of days, without having to see a doctor.
Noroviruses are a group of viruses that are the most common cause of stomach bugs (gastroenteritis) in Ireland. They are also known as small round structured viruses (SRSV) or Norwalk-like viruses.
Between 10,000 and 20,000 people per week in Ireland can catch norovirus in a peak period. . You may have heard of it as the "winter vomiting bug" because the illness is more common in winter. However, the virus can be caught at any time of the year.
What should I do?
If you have norovirus, the following steps should help ease your symptoms:
- Drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration.
- Take paracetamol for any fever or aches and pains.
- If you feel like eating, eat foods that are easy to digest.
- Stay at home and don't go to the doctor, because norovirus is contagious and there is nothing the doctor can do while you have it. However, you may wish to visit your GP if your symptoms last longer than a few days.
Extra care should be taken to prevent babies and small children who are vomiting or have diarrhoea from dehydrating, by giving them plenty of fluids.
Don't worry if you are pregnant and you get norovirus: there is no risk to your unborn child.
How to stop it spreading
The virus is easily spread by contact with an infected person, especially through their hands. You can also catch it through contaminated food or drink or by touching contaminated surfaces or objects.
The following measures should help prevent the virus from spreading further:
- Wash your hands frequently.
- Do not share towels and flannels.
- Disinfect any surfaces that an infected person has touched.
Outbreaks in busy places such as hospitals, nursing homes and schools are common because the virus can survive for several days on surfaces or objects touched by an infected person.
I've got norovirus again
Don't worry – it's OK to get norovirus more than once.
You can get norovirus several times because the virus is always changing, which means your body cannot build up resistance to it.
The first sign of norovirus is usually a sudden sick feeling followed by forceful vomiting and watery diarrhoea.
Some people may also have:
- a raised temperature (over 38C/100.4F)
- stomach cramps
- aching limbs
Symptoms usually appear one to two days after you become infected but they can start sooner. Most people make a full recovery within a couple of days.
Apart from the risk of dehydration, the illness is not generally dangerous and there are usually no long-lasting effects from having norovirus. However, it can be pretty unpleasant while you have it.
The main risk from norovirus is dehydration from your body losing water and salts from vomiting and diarrhoea.
The first sign of dehydration is thirst. Other symptoms are:
- dizziness or light-headedness
- dry mouth, lips and eyes
- dark, concentrated urine
- passing only small amounts of urine (fewer than three or four times a day)
Mild dehydration is common and can be easily reversed by making sure you have plenty to drink.
Dehydration is more of a risk in the very young and the elderly. It's important that you get medical attention straight away if you think your child is becoming dehydrated.
If you do not replace the lost fluid, dehydration will get worse and could lead to complications such as low blood pressure and kidney failure, and can even be fatal.
As well as severe thirst, you may also have:
- dry, wrinkled skin
- an inability to urinate
- sunken eyes
- a weak pulse
- a rapid heartbeat
- cold hands and feet
If you or your child have any symptoms of severe dehydration after catching a norovirus infection, seek medical attention as soon as possible.
Getting a diagnosis
Norovirus can be diagnosed by having a sample of your stools tested in a laboratory.
However, this is not usually necessary because treatment is the same for all causes of stomach bugs.
If you have a sudden episode of vomiting and diarrhoea, it is likely you have norovirus.
There is no specific treatment for norovirus.
It's best to let the illness run its course and your body usually fights off the infection within a couple of days. You don't need to see a doctor.
It is important to have plenty to drink and, if you feel the need, paracetamol for any fever or aches and pains.
Try to eat foods that are easy to digest, such as soup, rice, pasta and bread. Babies should continue with their normal feeds.
To reduce the risk of passing the virus onto others, wash your hands regularly and stay at home until you are clear of symptoms for 48 hours.
Drinking plenty of fluids is particularly important for young children and the elderly, as they are more prone to dehydration. They will need urgent medical treatment if they start to show signs of dehydration.
A healthy adult should drink about 1.2 litres (six to eight glasses) of fluid every day to stop getting dehydrated. Someone with norovirus will need to drink more than that to replace the fluids lost from vomiting and diarrhoea.
Suitable drinks include water, squashes and fruit juice. If you are finding it hard to keep down fluids, try to take small sips more frequently to keep yourself hydrated.
Infants and small chidlren should receive frequent sips of water even if they vomit. A small amount of fluid is better than none. Avoid giving fruit juices and carbonated drinks to children under the age of five, as these can worsen diarrhoea.
If you are worried that you are becoming dehydrated, your doctor or pharmacist may advise you to take rehydration drinks.
You can buy sachets of rehydration salts from your pharmacy and add them to water. They provide the correct balance of water, salt and sugar for your body.
Not all rehydration drinks are suitable for children, so check with your GP or pharmacist if the ones you have are. Find out more about treating dehydration.
If your symptoms continue for more than three days or you feel severely dehydrated at any time, get medical help immediately.
Advice for parents
Keep your child away from school or nursery for at least 48 hours after their last episode of diarrhoea or vomiting.
Also, children should not swim in a swimming pool for two weeks following the last episode of diarrhoea.
Read more about preventing norovirus.
Getting norovirus cannot always be avoided, but good hygiene can help to limit the virus spreading.
Tips to help stop the virus spreading:
- Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly with soap and water, particularly after using the toilet and before preparing food.
- Do not share towels and flannels.
- Disinfect any surfaces or objects that could be contaminated with the virus. It is best to use a bleach-based household cleaner.
- Wash any clothing or bedding that could have become contaminated with the virus. Wash the items separately and on a hot wash to ensure that the virus is killed.
- Flush away any infected faeces or vomit in the toilet and clean the surrounding toilet area.
- Avoid eating raw, unwashed produce and only eat oysters from a reliable source. Oysters have been known to carry the norovirus.
If you have norovirus, avoid direct contact with other people, and preparing food for others, until at least 48 hours after your symptoms have gone. You may still be contagious, even though you no longer have sickness or diarrhoea.
Avoid visiting hospitals if you have had the typical symptoms of norovirus in the past 48 hours. Norovirus is more serious and even more easily spread among people who are already ill.
You may be asked to rearrange a medical appointment if you have had recent symptoms.