What Is Rotavirus?

By Godsey, Cynthia M.S.N., F.N.P./C.
By Sinovic, Dianna

Rotavirus is a viral infection that causes severe diarrhea in children, particularly in youngsters under age 2. It causes up to 10 percent of all cases of diarrhea in children under age 5. The infection is dangerous for young children because it causes them to lose body fluids very quickly, says the CDC. Fortunately, a vaccine is now available to help protect children against rotavirus.


Rotavirus is very contagious, in part because the virus lasts a long time outside the body. The virus is found in the stool of an infected person before, during and after the time the person has diarrhea. So, a person can pass on the virus even when he or she has no symptoms. Children can become infected by touching an object contaminated with the stool of an infected person. This can occur if children forget to wash their hands after using the bathroom or before eating. Parent and caregivers also can pass on the virus if they don't wash their hands after changing diapers.

Three different strains of rotavirus are common in the United States, the FDA says. A child can get a rotavirus infection each time he or she encounters a new strain of the virus.

Who's at risk?

Infants and young children are at highest risk for infection from rotavirus, the CDC says. By the time children reach age 5, nearly all of them have had at least one rotavirus infection. The risk for severe diarrhea and dehydration is greatest in children ages 3 months to 35 months.

Although teens and adults can get a rotavirus infection, their symptoms are usually mild.

Rotavirus infection is most common during the winter, with peak months November through April.


Symptoms generally appear two to three days after a child is infected, the CDC says. The early symptoms are fever, an upset stomach and vomiting. Other possible symptoms are a cough and runny nose. These symptoms are followed by abdominal cramps and watery diarrhea. The diarrhea can be mild to severe, and can last three to nine days. The danger of severe diarrhea in children under 3 is dehydration, which can be fatal if not treated.

Symptoms of mild to moderate dehydration:

  • Thirst

  • Fatigue or restlessness

  • Irritability

  • Fast breathing

  • Slightly sunken eyes

  • Dry mouth and tongue

  • Cool skin on arms and legs

  • Fewer wet diapers

Symptoms of severe dehydration:

  • Unable to drink

  • Irritability

  • Lethargy

  • Deep breathing

  • Deeply sunken eyes

  • Parched mouth and tongue

  • Cold skin on arms and legs

  • Dry diaper for several hours

If you notice any of these symptoms, call your child's health care provider right away.


Two brands of vaccine are available to protect against rotavirus. Depending on the brand, the vaccine is given in two or three doses, at 2, 4, and, if needed, 6 months of age. According to CDC recommendations, the first dose should be given by 14 weeks, 6 days, and the last dose by 8 months of age.

Avoiding infection

It is nearly impossible to avoid the rotavirus because it is so contagious. You can help protect your children by encouraging them to wash their hands after using the bathroom and before eating. Wash your own hands thoroughly, as well.

Here are hand-tips from the CDC:

  • Use warm water, and make sure it's not too hot for your children.

  • Use soap -- any kind will do. Lather for 10 to 15 seconds, getting the soap between fingers, under nails and on the wrists.

  • Rinse hands and dry them well with a clean towel.


Rotavirus is a viral infection, so it cannot be treated with antibiotics. The diarrhea must be closely monitored, however, because in young children it can cause dehydration, the CDC says. Call your child's health care provider right away if you think your child is dehydrated.

A child who has mild diarrhea can continue to eat normally, but you should give him or her extra fluids. Water is a good choice. Don't give fruit juices or soft drinks, because they can make the diarrhea worse.

Your doctor may recommend an oral rehydration solution if your child is mild to moderately dehydrated. This solution usually is given for several hours, or until the child no longer feels thirsty and is urinating normally. The child then can then return to normal eating.

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