Cold plasma could (finally!) kill off norovirus

Anyone who’s had norovirus (also called the ‘winter vomiting bug’, lovely) knows how unpleasant it is. Anyone who doesn’t, I won’t describe the gory details. (Although I will say it gives your stomach muscles a good workout.) It’s the most common cause of gastroenteritis in the world, affecting tens of millions of people a year. And it’s supremely contagious as it lives on surfaces for hours after an affected person’s touched them.

It’s traditionally been difficult to find a way to stop it in its tracks because it’s resistant to most household chemical cleaners. But according to the BBC, German scientists think they have the answer: cold plasma. Cold plasma is the name given to ionised gas molecules kept at room temperature. It’s made up of noxious ions which can kill microbes. However, until now they hadn’t been shown to be effective on other sources of infection.

Dr Birte Ahlfeld and Professor Günter Klein from the University of Veterinary Medicine in Hannover tested it on a strain isolated from a human… er, sample. They found that cold plasma dramatically cut the number of virus particles (a 20- to 50-fold reduction). They say that if used with bleach, one of the few chemicals that has an effect on norovirus, we could finally have a way to stop so many people from getting so sick.

The scientists also say that the machine used to create cold plasma, which applies an electric field to air, could be scaled down to make a handheld device that would be far more effective than any sanitising solution. It could potentially also be built into salad bars or other likely sources of infection, although more testing would be needed to determine if it would help.

In the meantime, cold plasma’s being trialled for a range of medical treatments, including treating tooth decay more painlessly than current techniques.

Image via University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources & Environment’s Flickr.

Diane Shipley