What is rotavirus?

Rotavirus is a common stomach and intestinal illness. It mostly affects babies and young children. It is one of the most common causes of severe diarrhea. Almost all children will have a rotavirus infection by the time they are 5 years old.

Rotavirus is highly contagious. It spreads through direct or indirect contact with an infected person’s feces (poop). It can happen if you touch a contaminated object, food, water, or the hands or mouth of an infected person. The virus enters your body when your unclean hand touches your nose or mouth.

The risk of catching rotavirus is greatest in the winter and spring (December through June). Adults can get the disease, but their symptoms usually aren’t as severe.

What are the symptoms of rotavirus?

Symptoms include watery diarrhea, vomiting, fever, and stomach pain. If your child has rotavirus, they also may be weak and cry more than normal. Dehydration (not getting enough fluids) is a symptom in more severe cases. Dehydration happens because diarrhea and vomiting cause your body to lose fluids.

Symptoms of dehydration include:

  • Dry mouth and throat.
  • Decreased urination.
  • Crying with few or no tears.
  • Sunken eyes or sunken soft spot on the top of the head.
  • Unusual fussiness, sleepiness, or lethargy.

Once you have been exposed to rotavirus, it takes about 2 days for symptoms to appear. Symptoms can last between 3 and 8 days.

What causes rotavirus?

Rotavirus is a part of the Reoviridae family of viruses that commonly cause stomach and respiratory illness. It is spread through people’s stool (poop). If your child gets rotavirus particles in their mouth, it can make them sick. This happens when:

  • A child’s hands are contaminated with poop and they put them in their mouth.
  • A child touches contaminated objects or surfaces, such as toys, and then puts their fingers in their mouth.
  • A child eats contaminated food.

Rotavirus spreads easily between babies and young children. They can then spread it to caregivers or family members who they have close contact with.

How is rotavirus diagnosed?

Your doctor can usually diagnose rotavirus in your child based on their symptoms and an office exam. If your doctor is uncertain, he or she may ask that you bring in a stool sample from your child. Your doctor will send the sample to a lab for testing.

Can rotavirus be prevented or avoided?

A rotavirus oral vaccine offers some protection against the disease. There are two different vaccines available. One is usually given to babies at 2 and 4 months old. The other is given at 2, 4, and 6 months old. Your doctor will recommend which vaccine is right for your child. Your child should receive all doses of the vaccine before they are 8 months old.

The vaccine is not 100% effective. Children can still get the disease after getting the vaccine. However, vaccinated children typically have less serious symptoms than children who didn’t get the vaccine.

Beyond the vaccination, simple hand washing is the best prevention. Always wash your hands (and have your child wash their hands) before eating and after using the toilet. Always wash your hands after changing a diaper, whether or not the baby has the virus. If you know someone has rotavirus, wash your hands after touching them or anything they’ve touched. Children who are infected should stay away from other children until their diarrhea has ended.

Rotavirus treatment

Because rotavirus is a virus, it cannot be treated with antibiotics. Treatment focuses on relieving symptoms.

Your doctor will recommend treatment for your child’s symptoms, especially for fever and diarrhea. In severe cases of the illness, where dehydration occurs, your doctor will focus on giving your child more fluids. You may be able to increase your child’s fluids at home by giving them ice chips or popsicles. Avoid giving your child fruit juice or soda, which can make diarrhea worse. Your doctor may recommend special drinks that replace body fluids. If the problem is severe, your child may have to go to the hospital to receive IV fluids (injecting fluids into your child’s veins by inserting a small needle into their arm).

Living with rotavirus

Living with rotavirus will be unpleasant for a short time for your child and you, as the caregiver. Your focus will be on making your child comfortable and keeping your home free from contamination during their illness.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • If my child has rotavirus, how long is he or she contagious?
  • What’s the best way to give my child fluids?
  • What if I see blood in my child’s stool?
  • Is hand-washing with standard soap effective in fighting off the infection?
  • Do I need to use hand sanitizers?
  • Are there special foods that help reduce diarrhea?
  • Should I apply a special ointment to my child’s bottom to treat the irritation from diarrhea?