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Kids health

What is Rotavirus: Symptoms, Prevention, and Treatment

Rotavirus is a common, but preventable childhood illness that causes diarrhea and vomiting. Learn the signs and how to keep your child healthy.

What is Rotavirus: Symptoms, Prevention, and Treatment

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You bring your baby to their well-child check, and their provider mentions that your baby is due for the rotavirus vaccine. Babies and young children can become very sick if this illness isn’t treated, and the vaccine can help keep your baby healthy.

We spoke with Dr. Linda Yancey, an infectious disease specialist, to find out what you need to know about rotavirus, a common but potentially life-threatening cause of gastroenteritis in children.

What is rotavirus?

Rotavirus is a highly contagious gastrointestinal (GI) infection that can cause symptoms such as diarrhea and vomiting. “In children under five, rotavirus causes several hundred thousand clinic visits annually,” explains Dr. Yancey.

Rotavirus causes the most diarrhea deaths worldwide. According to a 2022 study, almost 20% of people who died from diarrhea in 2019 had rotavirus, and most of them were children under age 5. Yancey says some kids can get sick enough to be hospitalized. The rotavirus vaccine helps to prevent this sickness in young children and stop the spread of infection.

What are the causes of rotavirus, and how is it transmitted?

According to Dr. Yancey, rotavirus infections are spread by hand-to-mouth contact. If you come into contact with fecal matter (poop) and then touch your mouth with unwashed hands, you can get rotavirus. Daycare centers are a major source of transmission for the virus, especially if there are a lot of children attending. The rotavirus infection can even live on the surfaces of toys and other objects for weeks or months if those surfaces aren’t cleaned properly.

Unvaccinated children ages 3 months to 3 years can get the sickest, but others are still at risk, including:

  • People over the age of 65
  • Daycare workers who work with children
  • People with compromised immune systems

Rotavirus is seasonal, and your baby is at the highest risk in the United States during the winter and spring.

Sick child at the doctor's office with his mother. Little boy sitting with his father while a female paediatrician takes a listen with a stethoscope to his breathing and heartbeat. PeopleImages / Getty Images

What are the common symptoms of rotavirus?

Fever

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Within two days of exposure to rotavirus infection, children usually develop a fever of 102 degrees F or higher, with possible vomiting. Higher fevers can cause dehydration in babies and young children, especially if they’re also vomiting or having diarrhea. Dehydration can happen quickly and be dangerous for young children.

Vomiting

Vomiting can happen soon after exposure along with the fever and can last 3 to 8 days. You might also notice your child doesn’t have an appetite. If your child is vomiting frequently, they are at an increased chance of dehydration and electrolyte imbalances.

Diarrhea

Children infected with rotavirus can have severe watery diarrhea. Like vomiting, diarrhea can last 3 to 8 days and could come with stomach cramps.

How is rotavirus treated?

Because rotavirus is a viral illness, you can’t treat it with antibiotics. The virus usually goes away within three days to 1 week. Your child is most contagious when they have symptoms and for three days after they start feeling better.

During this time, you can make your child comfortable and prevent dehydration. Encourage them to drink plenty of liquids, including breastmilk, formula, or oral rehydration solutions such as Pedialyte or Enfalyte. These can be more effective than other liquids in replacing water and electrolytes lost during diarrhea and vomiting. Avoid sugary beverages such as juice because they can make diarrhea worse.

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You can also try over-the-counter (OTC) fever-reducers such as acetaminophen (Tylenol). Don’t give your child aspirin without talking to their healthcare provider.

a mother takes her toddler's temperature while hugging him on the couch Photo: iStock/FatCamera

How can rotavirus be prevented?

One of the best ways to prevent a rotavirus infection is to get vaccinated. “Prior to the rollout of the vaccine in 2006, rotavirus was responsible for 2.7 million cases per year in children under 5,” says Dr. Yancy, “Thousands of children required hospitalization, and about 40 died of it every year.

However, since the vaccine, Dr. Yancey says those numbers have been cut in half, and the vaccine is highly protective against hospitalization and deaths from rotavirus. The Cleveland Clinic says 9 in 10 children vaccinated against rotavirus either don’t have severe symptoms or don’t get the virus at all.

Your child can get the rotavirus vaccine if they’re between ages 2 months and 4 months old and might get it again at six months, depending on the brand. The vaccine is a liquid that’s given in a syringe by mouth. According to the CDC, it’s a safe and effective vaccine, tested in large-scale clinical trials in thousands of babies.

Besides the vaccine, washing your hands is critical to prevent the spread of rotavirus, says Dr. Yancey. Routinely disinfect toys and highly used surfaces such as tables and chairs that children frequently touch. Remind older children to keep their hands out of their mouths.

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Talk with your healthcare provider if you have questions about your child’s risk for rotavirus and the vaccine. They are your best partners in keeping your children as healthy as possible.

Experts

  • Dr. Linda Yancey, director of infection prevention at the Memorial Hermann Health System in Houston

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