The NHS is calling on the public to heed advice and stay at home if they have norovirus to avoid passing it on, as hospitals in England have been forced to close more than 1,100 hospital beds over the last week.
Top medics are concerned about the spread of the winter vomiting bug this year and the impact it is having on hospitals and other services.
They are therefore urging those who catch the virus not to go back to work or school until at least 48 hours after symptoms pass, to avoid passing it on to others.
National surveillance data from Public Health England (PHE) showed that the number of positive norovirus laboratory reports during the two weeks in the middle of November (11th-24th) was 28% higher than the average for the same period in the previous five years.
And almost double the number of hospital beds have been closed every day over the last week than at the same time last year, in a bid to stop the spread of diarrhoea and vomiting to more patients.
The NHS is responding by launching a new social media campaign to help people avoid catching the bug if possible, and recognise and deal with the symptoms of norovirus at home if they are unlucky enough to get infected.
Health bosses are also encouraging those who need it to seek help from the free, 24/7 NHS 111 phone and online service rather than going to hospital or their GP, where they risk infecting others.
Professor Stephen Powis, NHS Medical Director, said: “We’ve already seen a number of hospitals and schools affected by norovirus, and unfortunately instances like these are likely to rise over the coming weeks.
“It’s a really unpleasant illness to catch, but for the vast majority of people it will usually pass in a couple of days, and self-treating at home is the best way to help yourself and avoid putting others at risk.
“Crucially, if you’re experiencing norovirus symptoms it’s important that you don’t return to work or school for 48 hours after they clear – and avoid visiting elderly or ill friends and relatives – to avoid spreading it to other people.”
Nick Phin, National Infection Service Deputy Director at Public Health England, said: “Cases of norovirus are at higher levels than we would expect to see at this time of year, although this is not unprecedented. Practising good hygiene is one of the best ways to protect against norovirus. This includes thorough hand washing with soap and warm water after using the toilet and before eating or preparing food.
“We advise people not to visit GP surgeries and hospitals with symptoms. However, if they are concerned they should contact NHS 111 or talk to their GP by phone.”
Norovirus is one of the most common stomach bugs in the UK. It’s also called the winter vomiting bug because it’s more common in winter, although it can be caught at any time of the year.
Infections rarely require medical treatment and most people will recover from it within a few days. It is, however, highly contagious, and is easily passed on at home, at hospital, or in the local community, and those who have been infected remain carriers for some time.
It is therefore important that those who have experienced symptoms, or have been in contact with friends or family who have recently had norovirus, limit their contact with young children, elderly friends and relatives or those with pre-existing medical conditions.
Those who are experiencing severe symptoms or are worried about their children can seek guidance on what to do on the NHS.uk website, or by using the free NHS 111 phone or online service.
Five ways to limit the spread of norovirus:
1. Stay at home if you are experiencing norovirus symptoms. Do not return to work or send children to school until 48 hours after symptoms have cleared. Also avoid visiting elderly or poorly relatives, particularly if they are in hospital.
2. Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly with soap and warm water. Alcohol hand gels don’t kill norovirus.
3. Use a bleach-based household cleaner or a combination of bleach and hot water to disinfect household surfaces and commonly used objects such as toilets, taps, telephones, door handles and kitchen surfaces.
4. If you are ill, avoid cooking and helping prepare meals for others.
5. Wash any contaminated clothing or bedding using detergent and at 60°C, and if possible wear disposable gloves to handle contaminated items.
How to spot the signs of norovirus:
The main symptoms of norovirus are typically:
• suddenly feeling sick
• projectile vomiting
• watery diarrhoea
Some people also have a slight fever, headaches, painful stomach cramps and aching limbs.
The symptoms appear one to two days after people become infected and typically last for up to two or three days.
How to look after yourself if you have D&V:
Most people will make a full recovery within 1-2 days, but it is important to drink plenty of fluids during that time to prevent dehydration especially in the very young, elderly or those with weakened immunity.
• stay at home and get plenty of rest
• drink lots of fluids, such as water or squash – take small sips if you feel sick
• carry on breast or bottle feeding your baby – if they’re being sick, try giving small feeds more often than usual
• give babies on formula or solid foods small sips of water between feeds
• eat when you feel able to – you don’t need to eat or avoid any specific foods
• take paracetamol if you’re in discomfort – check the leaflet before giving it to your child
• go back to work, or send your children back to school, until 48 hours after symptoms have cleared
• have fruit juice or fizzy drinks – they can make diarrhoea worse
• make baby formula weaker – use it at its usual strength
• give children under 12 medicine to stop diarrhoea
• give aspirin to children under 16