Overview

Rotavirus is a type of infection that’s most common in children under the age of 5. It’s highly contagious and easily transmittable. While it occurs most often in young children, adults can also get the infection, although it’s usually less severe.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that before the rotavirus vaccine was introduced in 2006, the infection led to the following yearly statistics in children 5 and younger in the United States:

  • 400,000 visits to the pediatrician
  • between 55,000 and 70,000 hospital stays
  • at least 200,000 emergency room intakes
  • between 20 and 60 deaths

The rotavirus isn’t treated with medications. It usually resolves on its own with time. However, dehydration is a serious concern. Knowing when to seek medical intervention is essential to prevent life-threatening complications.

Symptoms of rotavirus

Rotavirus in children

Symptoms of rotavirus tend to be most prominent in children. According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms can start within two days after being exposed to the rotavirus. The most common symptom of rotavirus is severe diarrhea. Children can also experience:

  • vomiting
  • black or tarry stools
  • stools with blood or pus in them
  • severe fatigue
  • a high fever
  • irritability
  • dehydration
  • abdominal pain

Dehydration is the greatest concern in children. This age group is more vulnerable to a loss of electrolytes through vomiting and diarrhea because of they have smaller body weights. You’ll need to monitor your child carefully for symptoms of dehydration, such as:

  • dry mouth
  • cool skin
  • lack of tears when crying
  • reduced urination frequency (or fewer wet diapers in infants)
  • sunken eyes

Learn more: The warning signs of dehydration in toddlers »

Rotavirus in adults

Adults might also experience some of the symptoms or rotavirus. However, many healthy adults experience them to a lesser degree. Some adults infected with rotavirus may not even experience any symptoms at all.

How long rotavirus lasts

During the course of the infection, your child might first get a fever and vomit. Watery diarrhea can then occur between three and seven days thereafter. The infection itself can last for 10 days in your stool after your symptoms go away.

You may need to see a doctor if your symptoms don’t improve within a day or if they get worse. Rotavirus is diagnosed via a stool sample in a medical lab.

Rotavirus transmission

Rotavirus is transmitted between hand and mouth contact. If you touch a person or object carrying the virus and then touch your mouth, you could develop the infection. This is most common from not washing your hands after using the toilet or changing diapers.

Infants and children under 3 are at the highest risk for rotavirus infection. Being in daycare also raises their risk. You might consider taking extra precautions during winter and spring months, as more infections occur this time of year.

The virus can also remain on surfaces for a few weeks after an infected person touches them. This is why it’s crucial to disinfect all common surfaces in your home frequently, especially if a member of your household has rotavirus.

Learn more: 7 Ways to flu-proof your home »

Rotavirus treatment

There aren’t any medications or treatments that will make the rotavirus go away. This includes antiviral medications, over-the-counter anti-diarrheal drugs, and antibiotics.

In terms of treatment, then, the goal is to stay hydrated and comfortable while the virus works its way out of your system. Here are a few tips for what to do in the meantime:

  • Drink plenty of fluids.
  • Eat broth-based soups.
  • Take Pedialyte or other fluids with electrolytes (especially important for children).
  • Eat a diet of bland foods, such as white toast and saltines.
  • Avoid sugary or fatty foods as these can make diarrhea worse.

You should call 911 or seek emergency medical attention if your child has:

  • constant vomiting
  • frequent diarrhea for 24 hours or longer
  • inability to keep fluids down
  • a fever of 104°F (40°C) or higher
  • an unresponsive composure or signs of lethargy

Hospitalization is only required for infections that have caused severe dehydration. This is especially the case in children. Your doctor will administer intravenous (IV) fluids to help prevent life-threatening complications.

Rotavirus vaccines

The rotavirus vaccine was first introduced on the market in 2006. Before this time, it was commonplace for young children to have at least one bout of rotavirus infection.

You can help prevent rotavirus and its complications by making sure your child gets vaccinated. The vaccine comes in two forms:

  • Rotarix for infants 6 to 24 weeks old
  • RotaTeq for infants 6 to 32 weeks old

Both of these vaccines are oral, which means they are administered by mouth, not with an injection.

There is no vaccine available for older children and adults. This is why health professionals recommend getting the rotavirus vaccine for your child at a young age while you can.

Although the rotavirus vaccine can help, no vaccine is 100 percent effective in preventing future infections. You can talk to your pediatrician about the risks versus benefits of this type of vaccine, and whether it’s the best preventive measure for your child. Babies with severe combined immunodeficiency or intussusception, or who are already severely ill shouldn’t get the vaccine.

Rare side effects of the vaccine include:

  • diarrhea
  • fever
  • fussiness
  • irritability
  • intussusception (very rare)

Keep reading: The 6 most important vaccines you might not know about »

Outlook and prevention

Severe dehydration is a serious complication of rotavirus. It’s also the most common cause of rotavirus-related deaths worldwide. Children are the most susceptible. You should call your pediatrician if your child exhibits any symptoms of rotavirus to help prevent complications.

Vaccinations are the best way to prevent rotavirus, especially in young children. You can also help prevent spreading the infection by washing your hands frequently and particularly before eating.