• Norovirus illness is not inevitable!

    Norovirus and rotavirus are in the headlines again, with norovirus sweeping through the South West.

    So where does it come from and more to the point, is it inevitable that we will get it?

    Well the answer isn’t all that savoury – norovirus is carried in poo or vomit! People carry norovirus (sometimes without knowing about it). It is spread by contamination from poo (via hands or food or both) or by infection from vomit spraying near you.

    Not very attractive, but here is how it happens:

    Norovirus from faeces

    • Faeces in sewage gets into rivers or estuaries and then is consumed by oysters which are eaten by us. Tests do not show up norovirus, they test for E. coli, which is removed during the processing, but norovirus may still be there.
    • Sewage effluent sometimes gets used for irrigation of crops leaving norovirus on leaves.
    • Food workers including fruit pickers fail to wash their hands after going to the toilet and transfer norovirus to ready-to-eat food or to berries.
    • Carriers or those with symptoms use a toilet and flush without putting the lid down, spraying the virus on to nearby surfaces
    • Carriers don’t wash their hands after using the toilet and transfer the virus to other hand contact sites which can then be picked up by unsuspecting people who transfer it to their mouths. This transfer can happen when you:
      • lick your fingers
      • eat crisps and nuts / finger food
      • bite your nails
      • put your fingers in your mouth.

    Norovirus from vomit

    • Someone vomits near food and the virus transfers on to it.
    • Someone vomits and the virus lands on surfaces and transfers to hands and then to mouth (see above) or sprays onto people nearby.

    Top tips to prevent or contain norovirus illness


    • Think about where your hands have been before you eat. All those surfaces touched by people who may not have washed their hands after using the loo, hands shaken, toilet doors touched. It makes sense to follow what your mum probably always told you to do – wash your hands before dinner!
    • We eat on the move more and more – ask yourself – are my hands clean enough to eat food with my fingers?
    • If at an event where everyone is shaking hands and eating finger food – shake with the right hand, eat with the left (you don’t know how hygienic other people are)!
    • Try to avoid habits such as nail biting and eating snacks on public transport unless you clean your hands first.
    • Wash your hands properly – 20 seconds, soap, water thorough rubbing and rinsing are required – and dry with a clean towel or paper towel. If you use a hot air dryer then make sure you dry your hands before you leave the wash room.
    • To be sure you don’t re-contaminate your hands when leaving the washroom, use a tissue to open the door, or if all else fails, your sleeve.
    • If you can’t get to a basin to wash your hands, then use hand gel – check the label for the anti-bacterial and anti-viral ones!


    • Put the lid down when you flush – and make everyone do the same – saves splattering bathroom items such as toothbrushes with viruses – yuk!


    • I’d think carefully about eating a raw oyster – if you do want to risk it, it may help if they come from a good source (some are even guaranteeing norovirus free oysters). If you are more vulnerable to infection, for example, over 60, under 5, pregnant, immunocompromised or taking ant-acid medication, you will be more susceptible to food poisoning. So I would give them a miss, or get them grilled with garlic! I know plenty of people who have been ill from a rogue oyster, and two separate families who had Christmas dinner ruined by a Christmas Eve oyster!
    • Wash salads, fruit, berries and any food you will eat without cooking. Even bagged salad would probably benefit from a wash.
    • Frozen foods which are not ready to eat could contain viruses as well as other pathogens such as E. coli and Listeria. Indeed there is currently an issue with people eating frozen veg without cooking it first and getting Listeria.

    Illness in the home

    • If someone is ill at home, crank up the hygiene – it is worth it!
    • It is not inevitable that everyone will be ill.
    • If someone vomits at home, then clear up quickly and disinfect surfaces – even far away from where the vomiting took place.
    • Disinfect hand touch surfaces that may be contaminated, e.g. door handle, stair bannisters and toilet flush handles. Dilute bleach will kill viruses but obviously be careful about where you use it as it could damage surfaces. Read the small print to find the latest anti-viral disinfectants.
    • Make sure you protect yourself and always wash your hands after clearing up – thoroughly!
    • Use steam cleaners if you have them on soft furnishings, but check the fabric first.
    • Teddies, if splattered by vomit, need to be washed. A soak in a laundry sanitiser may help if they can’t go in the machine at high temperatures. Wash your hands really well after cleaning up. Any soiled clothing should have a hot wash about 60°C or even better 90°C if fabrics can stand it. If you have used a cloth, bin it!

    Will antibiotics help me if I am ill with norovirus?

    No! The best thing you can do is protect yourself and your family with a bit of targeted hygiene.The easiest win is hand washing, you know it makes sense! The World Health Organisation says hand washing is the single most cost effective way to reduce infections – so take heed!

    More information

    Take a look at the IFH Fact sheet and also the e-learning resource on breaking the chain of infection.




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