Alarming norovirus headlines suggest the illness, sometimes known as the winter vomiting bug, is having a bumper year.
Norovirus isn’t new, it’s actually the most common stomach bug in the UK and Ireland and can strike anyone at any time, but you’re more likely to catch it in the winter.
This winter, it’s already estimated three quarters of a million people have come down with the illness, which causes vomiting and diarrhoea, making it the worst start to the norovirus season on record.
Experts aren’t sure if this signals a particularly bad season ahead or if it's just beginning slightly earlier than usual. Records show the biggest number of cases usually occur in the second half of the winter, after Christmas.
[Related: Boost your immune system this winter]
Why is it so bad this year?
Norovirus is very contagious, which is why when an outbreak begins it can take on epic proportions. This year, many hospital wards across the country have been forced to close to stem the infection and some schools have closed their doors with as many as half of the pupils off sick.
It’s thought that the cold is to blame for this recent outbreak. In cold weather our immune systems get worn down, leaving us more open to illness. Those who’ve been ill are also more likely to come down with norovirus, before their immune systems have time to get back to normal.
The cold weather drives us inside and into more and closer contact with each other, which allows the norovirus to spread.
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How can you avoid norovirus?
You can’t always prevent yourself catching norovirus, particularly if you come into close contact with others, be it at home, work, school or on public transport. But there are steps you can take that help, and if you do come down with it, it’s important you take measures to avoid spreading it.
- Wash your hands thoroughly and regularly, especially after visiting the bathroom and before preparing or eating food. Keep a antibacterial cleanser on you and use it regularly, particularly when using public transport or after touching handles or other items used by others
- Disinfect surfaces and objects the ill person comes into contact with
- Don’t share towels and make sure these, flannels and any bedding used by the ill person is washed separately at a high temperature to kill the virus
Last year the Food Standards Agency discovered that 76 per cent of farmed Oysters grown in Britain contained traces of the norovirus. These are best avoided during the norovirus season, especially by anyone who is frail or has a lowered immune system.