Health Library Explorer
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z A-Z Listings Contact Us
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
Click a letter to see a list of conditions beginning with that letter.
Click 'Topic Index' to return to the index for the current topic.
Click 'Library Index' to return to the listing of all topics.

Rotavirus Infection in Children

What is rotavirus in children?

Rotavirus is a contagious virus that causes nausea and diarrhea. It is the leading cause of severe infectious diarrhea in children. Some babies and children may have diarrhea so severe that they may lose too much water (dehydration). They may need emergency care and a hospital stay. A child may be infected with rotavirus more than once. In most cases, later illnesses are milder. There is also a vaccine for rotavirus.

What causes rotavirus in a child?

Rotavirus is most often spread through a fecal-oral route. This is often because a child does not wash his or her hands properly or often enough. It can also be caused by eating or drinking contaminated food or water.

The virus may live on surfaces such as doorknobs, toys, and other hard objects for a long time. For this reason, outbreaks can occur in households and child-care centers. To prevent spread of the virus, children who aren’t sick should not be in contact with a sick child.  

Which children are at risk for rotavirus?

Most children get the virus between the ages of 3 months and 35 months. Infections are more common in the cooler months of the year, starting in the fall and ending in the spring. Children are more at risk at these times. Any child who is around a child sick with rotavirus is at risk.

What are the symptoms of rotavirus in a child?

After a child comes in contact with the virus, it may take up to 2 days for symptoms to develop. Symptoms can occur a bit differently in each child. They can range from mild to severe. The most common symptoms of rotavirus include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Watery diarrhea that occurs often, and may last from 3 to 8 days
  • Belly (abdominal) pain
  • Fever that goes away after 1 to 2 days

Loss of too much water from the body (dehydration) can occur quickly, especially in babies. Symptoms of dehydration can include:

  • Lethargy
  • Sleepiness
  • Irritability
  • Dry mouth
  • Thirst
  • Pale or blotchy color to the skin
  • Eyes that look sunken
  • Baby's soft spot (fontanelle) that feels sunken
  • Fewer or no tears when crying
  • Less urine or fewer wet diapers

The symptoms of rotavirus can be like other health conditions. Make sure your child sees his or her healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

How is rotavirus diagnosed in a child?

The healthcare provider will ask about your child’s symptoms and health history. He or she will give your child a physical exam. Your child's stool may also be tested for the virus.  

How is rotavirus treated in a child?

Treatment will depend on your child’s symptoms, age, and general health. It will also depend on how severe the condition is. Antibiotics are not used to treat this illness.

The goal of treatment is to help reduce symptoms. Treatment may include:

  • Giving your child plenty of water, formula, breastmilk, or fluids with electrolytes (sugars and salts). Don't give young children soda, juice, or sports drinks.
  • Feeding your child solid foods if he or she can eat. Don’t restrict food if your child is able to eat. Not having food may cause the diarrhea to last longer.

If your child loses too much water, he or she may need to be in the hospital. Treatment there may include:

  • Intravenous (IV) fluids. A thin, flexible tube is put into your child’s vein. Fluids are given through this tube.
  • Nasogastric (NG) tube feeding. A small tube may be placed into your child's stomach through his or her nose. Formula or other fluids may be given through this tube.
  • Blood tests. These are done to measure the levels of sugar, salt, and other chemicals (electrolytes) in your child’s blood.

What are possible complications of rotavirus in a child?

Loss of too much water from the body (dehydration) can occur quickly, especially in babies. Dehydration needs to be treated right away (see above).

How can I help prevent rotavirus in my child?

If your child has rotavirus, he or she may not be able to attend daycare or school while ill. If your child is in the hospital, he or she will be kept away from other children to prevent spread of the virus.

At home, good handwashing is important to prevent spread of the disease. To help prevent spread of the illness:

  • Handle and dispose of dirty diapers carefully.
  • Wash your hands before and after caring for your child. Use soap and warm water and scrub for at least 20 seconds. Rinse well and air dry or use a clean towel.
  • Clean hard surfaces, toys, and doorknobs with a disinfectant.
  • Make sure your child washes his or her hands often, especially after using the toilet.
  • Make sure your child-care center encourages handwashing.

Ask your child’s healthcare provider about the rotavirus vaccine. Two oral rotavirus vaccines are available. They are RotaTeq and Rotarix. The CDC recommends that babies get one of these vaccines. RotaTeq oral vaccine is given at ages 2 months, 4 months, and 6 months. Rotarix oral vaccine is given at age 2 months and 4 months.

When should I call my child’s healthcare provider?

Call the healthcare provider if your child has:

  • Symptoms that don’t get better, or get worse
  • New symptoms

Key points about rotavirus in children

  • Rotavirus is a contagious virus that causes nausea and diarrhea.
  • Some babies and children may have diarrhea so severe that they lose too much water (dehydration). They may need emergency care and a hospital stay.
  • Most children get the virus between the ages of 3 months and 35 months.
  • The virus causes watery diarrhea that may last from 3 to 8 days. It can also cause nausea, vomiting, and fever.
  • Treatment includes giving plenty of water, formula, breastmilk, or fluids with electrolytes (sugars and salts).
  • If your child has rotavirus, he or she may not be able to attend daycare or school while ill.
  • At home, good handwashing can prevent the disease from being spread.
  • Ask your child’s healthcare provider about the rotavirus vaccine.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your child’s healthcare provider:

  • Know the reason for the visit and what you want to happen.
  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
  • At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you for your child.
  • Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed and how it will help your child. Also know what the side effects are.
  • Ask if your child’s condition can be treated in other ways.
  • Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.
  • Know what to expect if your child does not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.
  • If your child has a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
  • Know how you can contact your child’s provider after office hours. This is important if your child becomes ill and you have questions or need advice.
Online Medical Reviewer: Freeborn, Donna, PhD, CNM, FNP
Online Medical Reviewer: Lentnek, Arnold, MD
Date Last Reviewed: 10/1/2016
© 2000-2017 The StayWell Company, LLC. 800 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.