Rotavirus is a highly contagious infection most common in children under 5. Adults can also develop it, but it’s usually less severe.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that before the rotavirus vaccine was introduced in 2006, the infection led to the following yearly statistics in children 5 years 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 visits
  • between 20 and 60 deaths

The vaccine is more than 90 percent effective in preventing severe rotavirus disease.

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 tend to be most prominent in children. Symptoms can start within 2 days after being exposed to the rotavirus.

Rotavirus in children

The most common symptom of rotavirus is severe diarrhea. Children can also experience:

  • vomiting
  • 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 fluid and electrolytes through vomiting and diarrhea because 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

Rotavirus in adults

Adults might also experience some of the symptoms of rotavirus, such as:

  • vomiting
  • severe fatigue
  • a high fever
  • irritability
  • dehydration
  • abdominal pain

However, many healthy adults experience them to a lesser degree. Some adults with rotavirus may not even experience any symptoms at all.

Rotavirus germs are found in a person’s stool (poop) and can spread to other surfaces with unwashed hands after using the bathroom or diaper changes. If these germs come into contact with someone’s mouth, this is known as fecal-oral spread.

People can pass on rotavirus without even having symptoms.

While fecal-oral spread is most common, it’s possible to also get rotavirus by coming into any kind of contact with the bodily fluids of someone who has it, such as being sneezed on, or touching doorknobs or toys that have been touched by a child who has it.

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

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

Home remedies

  • Drink plenty of fluids.
  • Eat broth-based soups.
  • Take Pedialyte or other fluids with electrolytes (but homemade electrolyte solutions are NOT recommended because the combination of ingredients may not be appropriate).
  • Avoid sugary or fatty foods, or sugary juices, as these can make diarrhea worse.

The BRAT diet (bananas, rice, applesauce, toast) is no longer recommended. It’s recommended to maintain a balanced diet if possible to ensure adequate nutrition throughout the illness.

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.

Since the vaccine was introduced, hospitalizations and deaths from rotavirus have dropped significantly.

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

  • Rotarix: 2-dose series at 2 and 4 month olds
  • RotaTeq: 3-dose series at 2, 4, and 6 months 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 prevents nearly all severe cases of infection, no vaccine is 100 percent effective. You can talk with 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 (bowel blockage that causes severe abdominal pain, vomiting, and bloody stools) (this is very rare)

If your child has the following symptoms, call their doctor:

  • constant vomiting
  • frequent diarrhea for 24 hours or longer
  • inability to keep fluids down
  • a fever of 104°F (40°C) or higher
  • decreased urination (or fewer wet diapers)
Medical emergency

You should call 911 or seek emergency medical attention if your child is difficult to wake up or has signs of lethargy (such as not responding).

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

The virus that causes rotavirus is present in stool and is mainly 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 years old are at the highest risk of developing a 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 several days (and possibly weeks) after a person with the infection 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.

During the course of the infection, your child might first get a fever and vomit. Watery diarrhea can then occur between 3 and 8 days after. The infection itself can last for 10 days in stool after symptoms go away.

You may need to call a doctor if symptoms don’t improve within a few days or if they get worse. Rotavirus is diagnosed via a stool PCR test in a medical lab.

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 child’s 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 by washing your hands frequently, particularly before eating.

Children may have a rotavirus infection more than once, but the vaccine prevents the severity of the condition.