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The Stomach Bug: Coping with the Norovirus

It sweeps through our schools, offices and institutions like an outbreak. The dreaded stomach bug – medically known as the Norovirus – is most active in the last weeks of winter and all through early summer. It is highly contagious and often when one family member gets it, the others follow.

The stomach bug or gastroenteritis is caused by a few different viruses, of which the Norovirus is the most common. It is also known as the ‘gastric flu’, ‘stomach flu’, ‘winter vomiting’ or ‘viral gastro’. The Norovirus alone has as many as 25 strains and it is very hard to distinguish between them. That’s also the reason why no one is immune to it. Despite being a short-lived illness, the Norovirus is not as benign as it seems. It is estimated to cause 800 deaths a year, globally.

The symptoms:
The symptoms of a stomach bug and food poisoning are very similar and that’s why a stomach bug is often misdiagnosed. Food poisoning kicks in within 2-6 hours of eating contaminated food while the Norovirus may incubate a bit longer. Typical stomach bug symptoms are the following:

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhoea
  • Stomach cramps
  • Nausea
  • Mild fever and aches
  • Exhaustion

If you are not sure what is causing the vomiting, diarrhoea and stomach cramps, see your GP. Pregnant women, the elderly and babies must see a doctor at the first sign of symptoms as they have lower reserves of fluids.

Stomach Bug

The treatment:
There is no known treatment for the Norovirus, nor is there a vaccine. A typical Norovirus infection takes 24-48 hours to clear. These are some of the steps you can take to ease the symptoms:

  • The most important step in dealing with the symptoms of the stomach bug is hydration. Vomiting and diarrhoea can cause dehydration, which must be avoided. Drink plenty of fluids, especially water, and if needed add electrolytes to replace lost minerals and salts from the body. Avoid juice or sugary drinks. It could make the symptoms worse. Clear soup, ginger tea and other home remedies can ease the discomfort but avoid hot, highly caffeinated drinks.
  • If you start to run a high temperature, have dark urine or get dizzy when you stand, chances are that you are severely dehydrated, so get medical help immediately.
  • Avoid solid food till the stomach settles. Start slowly with small pieces of dry toast or crackers. If you can keep it down, have a little bit more. If not, stop all solids. Some GPs recommend the BRAT diet – bananas, rice, applesauce and toast. These are easy to digest foods that will keep your energy up. But discuss the diet with your GP first.
  • Rest well. This is the time you can binge watch a box set of your favourite TV show or read a book guilt-free.

Stomach Bug

Keeping yourself safe:
While the Norovirus may be contagious, a few simple steps could stop you from being infected with it.

  • Washing hands: Encourage your family to frequently wash their hands with soap and water, especially when:
    • They have been in crowded places or could have touched things touched by others e.g. at the playground, after a ball game, after travelling on public transport, etc.
    • They may have changed nappies if there are babies or toddlers in the house.
    • They may have cleaned up after a child who is infected and have touched soiled clothing or surfaces. Wipe floors and other surfaces with a hospital grade disinfectant or household bleach.
  • Restricting contact: Limit contact with infected family members and try to stop them from passing on the virus:
    • Infected persons should not be cooking food and should avoid touching food packets that may be shared by family members such as biscuit packs, the bread tin, etc.
    • Ideally, infected persons should avoid touching food storage areas like the refrigerator and kitchen cupboards. If possible they should keep away from all the food preparation area as well.
    • Air the house well and frequently if the weather permits.
    • Talk to your children about sharing food, water bottles and sports gear in school and at activities.
  • Avoid contamination at work: If you run a business make sure that:
    • Your staff is given the time off to recover completely from the stomach bug so that they do not infect other employees.
    • Take particular care with the hygiene in the office to ensure that the kitchen, pantry, toilets, door handles, desks etc. are regularly wiped down with disinfectants. Keep handwash and wipes in all wet areas.
    • Ensure that the office is well ventilated and aired frequently.

The stomach bug is a quick come, quick go illness. However, if any of the symptoms are worrisome, see your GP immediately. The GP will prescribe the right medication and care.

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