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Norovirus explained: Q&A with local GP and CCG joint medical director Andrew Phillips

Every year, seemingly, wards in hospitals across the UK are temporarily closed in an attempt to prevent the spread of norovirus. But what is it? How is it spread? Is it treatable?

To answer these questions, and many more, we sat down with Dr Andrew Phillips, a local GP and joint medical director at the NHS Vale of York Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG), to get the lowdown on one of the most common stomach bugs, which is contracted by millions of people throughout the world every year.

What is norovirus?

Norovirus, also known as the winter vomiting bug, is the most common stomach bug in the UK. It affects people of all ages and is highly contagious and spreads rapidly in closed environments such as hospitals, schools and care homes.

Does it only exist in the winter?

No, it’s often referred to as the ‘winter vomiting bug’ because it’s most prevalent between October to March, but it can occur at any point during the year.

Can you get it more than once?

Yes, you certainly can because the virus is always changing so your body is unable to build up long-term resistance to it.

What are the symptoms?

Norovirus causes vomiting and diarrhoea, and symptoms usually last between one and two days. That said, the severity and duration of symptoms can vary from person to person. Some people also experience a slight fever, headaches, stomach cramps and aching limbs.

How is norovirus spread?

Norovirus is highly contagious and can be transmitted when particles from vomit or faeces are passed on or ingested. The virus can easily be transmitted through close contact with an infected person, eating food or drinking liquids that are contaminated or touching surfaces or objects that are contaminated and then touching your nose or mouth. Norovirus can survive for several days in a contaminated area.

What should I do if I have norovirus?

Get plenty of rest at home, drink lots of fluids (more than usual) to avoid dehydration and take paracetamol to alleviate fever or any aches and pains. If you feel like eating, stick to plain foods like rice, pasta and bread.

Wash your hands regularly and stay at home until you’re feeling better (at least 48 hours after symptoms have cleared). There’s no cure for norovirus so you have to let it run its course.

Should I see my GP or another medical professional?

Visiting your GP surgery with norovirus can put others at risk so I’d advise that you call, rather than visit, your GP or NHS 111 if you’re concerned or need medical advice.

You don't normally need to see your GP if you have norovirus because there's no specific treatment for it, while antibiotics won't help because it's caused by a virus.

When should I seek medical advice?

You should seek medical advice if you or your child show symptoms of severe dehydration – such as passing little or no urine, persistent dizziness or reduced consciousness.

Additionally you should seek advice if you have bloody diarrhoea or if your symptoms haven’t improved after a few days. Those with underlying conditions, such as kidney disease, should seek advice of they have diarrhoea and vomiting.

How do I prevent it?

There’s no full-proof plan to prevent getting norovirus but you can take steps to help stop the virus from spreading.

Firstly, stay at home for at least 48 hours after symptoms have cleared and do not visit anyone in hospital during this time – that point is really important.

Be sure to wash your hands with soap and water regularly and thoroughly – for at least the amount of time it takes to sing the Happy Birthday song. Make sure you use soap and water only, as alcohol hand gels do not kill the virus. Wash your hands every time you use the toilet and before preparing food.

Disinfect any surfaces or objects that could be contaminated with a bleach-based cleaner. Clean clothing and bedding that could have become contaminated on a hot wash (at least 60C, if the material can withstand) and don’t share towels or flannels.

Avoid eating raw, unwashed food and flush away any infected poo or vomit in the toilet and clean the surrounding area.

Have there been any norovirus outbreaks in the Vale of York area?

Norovirus is extremely infectious and spreads very easily in public places such as nursing homes and schools, and it is usually brought into hospital by visitors once it becomes prevalent in the community.

Unfortunately this means York Hospital can experience outbreaks every year. The hospital staff have clear processes to follow in these circumstances to contain the spread of the virus, which can include closing areas to minimise the risk of infection.

For more information about norovirus visit: www.nhs.uk/norovirus

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