Rotavirus is the most common cause of diarrhea in infants and children worldwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most children have had at least one bout with rotavirus by age 2 or 3.
Although rotavirus infections are unpleasant, you can treat most of them at home with extra fluids to prevent dehydration. Occasionally, severe dehydration requires intravenous fluids in the hospital. Dehydration is a serious complication of rotavirus and a major cause of childhood deaths in developing countries.
Vaccination can help prevent rotavirus infection in your infant. For older children and adults — who aren't as likely to develop serious symptoms of rotavirus — frequent hand washing is the best line of defense.
A rotavirus infection usually starts with a fever, followed by three to eight days of watery diarrhea and vomiting. The infection can cause abdominal pain as well. In adults who are otherwise healthy, a rotavirus infection may cause only mild signs and symptoms — or none at all.
When to see a doctor
If you're an adult, call your doctor if you:
Rotavirus is present in an infected person's stool several days before symptoms appear and for up to 10 days after symptoms subside. The virus spreads easily through hand-to-mouth contact throughout this time — even if the infected person doesn't have symptoms.
If you have rotavirus and you don't wash your hands after using the toilet — or your child has rotavirus and you don't wash your hands after changing your child's diaper or helping your child use the toilet — the virus can spread to anything you touch, including food, toys and utensils. If another person touches your unwashed hands or a contaminated object and then touches his or her mouth, an infection may follow.
Sometimes rotavirus spreads through contaminated water or infected respiratory droplets coughed or sneezed into the air.
Because there are many types of rotavirus, it's possible to be infected more than once. However, repeat infections are typically less severe.
Rotavirus infections are most common in children ages 4 months to 24 months — particularly those who spend time in child care settings. Older adults and adults caring for young children have an increased risk of infection as well.
Your risk of rotavirus is highest in winter and spring.
Severe diarrhea can lead to dehydration, particularly in young children. Left untreated, dehydration can become a life-threatening condition regardless of its cause.
Preparing for your appointment
If you or your child needs to see a doctor, you'll likely see your primary care provider first. If there are questions about the diagnosis, your doctor may refer you to an infectious disease specialist.
What you can do
If at any time during your appointment you don't understand what the doctor is saying, don't hesitate to ask for clarification.
What to expect from your doctor
What you can do in the meantime
Tests and diagnosis
Rotavirus is often diagnosed based on symptoms and a physical exam. A stool sample may be analyzed in a lab to confirm the diagnosis.
Treatments and drugs
There's no specific treatment for a rotavirus infection. Antibiotics won't help a rotavirus infection. Usually, the infection resolves within three to eight days. Preventing dehydration is the biggest concern.
To prevent dehydration while the virus runs it course, drink plenty of fluids. If your child has severe diarrhea, offer an oral rehydration fluid such as Pedialyte — especially if the diarrhea lasts longer than a few days. For children, a rehydration fluid can replace lost minerals more effectively than can water or other liquids. Severe dehydration may require intravenous fluids in the hospital.
Lifestyle and home remedies
If your baby is sick, offer small amounts of liquid. If you're breast-feeding, let your baby nurse. If your baby drinks formula, offer a small amount of an oral rehydration fluid or regular formula. Don't dilute your baby's formula.
If your older child isn't feeling well, encourage him or her to rest. Offer bland foods, such as soda crackers and toast. Plenty of liquids are important, too, including an oral rehydration fluid such as Pedialyte. Avoid apple juice, dairy products and sugary foods, which can make a child's diarrhea worse.
If you're struggling with diarrhea or vomiting, take it easy. Suck on ice chips or take small sips of water or clear sodas, such as ginger ale, or broths. Eat bland foods. Avoid anything that may irritate your stomach, including dairy products, fatty or highly seasoned foods, caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine.
To reduce the spread of rotavirus, wash your hands thoroughly and often — especially after you use the toilet, change your child's diaper or help your child use the toilet. But even strict hand washing doesn't offer any guarantees.
Currently, there are two vaccines offered against rotavirus:
Last Updated: 2010-09-03
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