Cornwall and Devon have seen a recent outbreak of norovirus, colloquially known as the winter vomiting bug due to its prevalence at this time of the year. But what exactly is this illness, and how can it be prevented from spreading?

Norovirus is a highly contagious disease characterised by diarrhoea, vomiting, and stomach pain. Symptoms typically develop 12 to 48 hours after being exposed to the virus and usually last one to three days. It is estimated that each year there are nearly 700 million cases worldwide, causing 200,000 deaths. Norovirus and influenza are both RNA viruses, which means they replicate by using RNA instead of DNA. This makes them highly mutation-prone and, consequently, difficult for the immune system to defend against, which is why you can catch norovirus year after year.

Hard to kill

Another danger is that it can be spread even after you feel better, because, like influenza, the virus is still being produced in the body after you return to health. This means that people returning to work as soon as they no longer have the symptoms may infect others as a result. It is therefore recommended that you stay at home for at least two days after you recover.         

Norovirus is encased in a capsid protein shell which alcohol cannot penetrate, this is why alcohol-based hand sanitizers do not kill norovirus. It will, however, be killed by bleach, which is why restaurants and bars are required to clean surfaces with bleach. Areas that you suspect are contaminated should be cleaned and disinfected this way too. Clothes and linens that may be contaminated should also be washed thoroughly, and individuals should have their own clean towels rather than sharing them.

Norovirus spreads via the faecal-oral route; hands should therefore be cleaned thoroughly after using the toilet and changing nappies, as well as before handling food. Fruits and vegetables should be washed before preparing and eating them and shellfish should be cooked thoroughly before being eaten. If you do become sick, then you should not prepare food for others for at least two to three days after you recover.

Rest is best

Unfortunately, there is no specific medication that can be used to treat norovirus. Antibiotics will not help the illness, as they do not work on viruses. Resting and drinking plenty of liquids to replace fluid loss and prevent dehydration is important in recovery, and special rehydration drinks can be taken if you are showing signs of dehydration, like dry mouth or dark urine. Paracetamol can be taken for any fever, aches or pains that you may have, and antidiarrheal and anti-vomiting medication can be taken to tackle the symptoms – though medical advice should sought before taking these.

Fortunately, most people recover from norovirus after a couple of days and can get back to everyday activities shortly after. By following these hygiene tips you can prevent the virus from spreading, keeping you and those around you safe!   

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