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Rotavirus

Reviewed by: Jamie L. Clute, MD

What Is Rotavirus?

Rotavirus is a common virus that infects the linings of the intestines. It causes vomiting and diarrhea, especially in babies and young children. Childcare centers are a common site of infection outbreaks.

Rotavirus immunizations are recommended for most children, and can prevent many rotavirus infections.

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Rotavirus?

Kids with a rotavirus infection have:

  • fever
  • nausea and vomiting
  • belly cramps
  • frequent, watery diarrhea

They also might have a cough and runny nose. As with all viruses, though, some rotavirus infections cause few or no symptoms, especially in adults.

Sometimes the diarrhea is so severe that it can quickly lead to dehydration. A child who's dehydrated might:

  • be thirsty
  • be cranky
  • be restless
  • be very tired
  • have sunken eyes
  • have a dry mouth and tongue
  • have dry skin
  • make fewer trips to the bathroom to pee
  • in infants, have a dry diaper for several hours

Is Rotavirus Contagious?

Yes, rotavirus passes easily from one person to another. Infections are common during the winter and spring months, especially in group settings like childcare centers.

The virus passes in the stool (poop) of infected people before and after they have symptoms. Kids can become infected if they put their fingers in their mouths after touching a contaminated surface, like a toy. Usually this happens when kids don't wash their hands often enough, especially before eating and after using the toilet.

People who care for kids, including health care and childcare workers, also can spread the virus, especially if they don't wash their hands after changing diapers.

What Problems Can Happen?

Each year in the U.S., rotavirus infections:

  • cause about 3 million cases of diarrhea
  • lead to 55,000 hospitalizations for diarrhea and dehydration in children younger than 5 years old

Severe infections, called rotavirus gastroenteritis, are the leading cause of severe, dehydrating diarrhea in infants and young children.

These infections cause relatively few U.S. deaths. But rotavirus-related diarrhea causes more than half a million deaths worldwide every year, especially in developing countries.

How Is Rotavirus Treated?

Babies and toddlers who are dehydrated may treatment in a hospital. They'll get intravenous (IV) fluids to bring the body's fluid and salt levels back to normal. Most older kids can be treated at home.

Your doctor may need to test your child's blood, pee, or stool to confirm that the diarrhea is being caused by rotavirus and not by bacteria. Antibiotics only work against illnesses caused by bacteria. So, the doctor will not prescribe antibiotics to treat a rotavirus infection.

Home Treatment

To prevent dehydration, follow your doctor's advice about what your child should eat and drink. Your doctor may suggest that you give your child special drinks that replace body fluids, especially if the diarrhea has lasted for more than 2 or 3 days.

Kids with mild diarrhea who are not dehydrated should eat as usual but drink more fluids. Avoid fruit juices and soft drinks, which can make diarrhea worse. Those with mild to moderate dehydration should drink small amounts of an oral rehydration solution often. They can go back to eating as usual when they're better. Breastfed children continue breastfeeding throughout.

A child who is vomiting will need to eat smaller amounts of food more often. Don't give your child over-the-counter medicines for vomiting or diarrhea unless your doctor recommends them.

Can Rotavirus Be Prevented?

The rotavirus vaccine, can prevent many causes of rotavirus. The vaccine is a liquid given by mouth to babies at ages 2 and 4 months, and again at 6 months, depending on the vaccine brand.

The RotaTeq and Rotarix vaccines prevent more than 75% of cases of rotavirus infection and 85%—98% of severe cases. Your doctor will have the latest information about these vaccines.

Washing hands well and often is the best way to limit the spread of rotavirus infection. Kids with rotavirus should stay home from childcare until the diarrhea is gone.

When Should I Call the Doctor?

Call the doctor if your child has signs of a rotavirus infection, such as:

  • watery diarrhea
  • fever
  • nausea
  • vomiting

Call right away if your child has signs of dehydration.

Reviewed by: Jamie L. Clute, MD
Date reviewed: September 2014