What Is Rotavirus?

Rotavirus is a viral infection that causes severe diarrhea in children, particularly in youngsters less than 2 years old. It can cause up to 10 percent of all cases of diarrhea in children under age 5. The infection, and resulting diarrhea, can be dangerous for young children because it can cause them to lose body fluids very quickly, leading to dehydration. Fortunately, a vaccine is now available to help protect children against rotavirus.


Rotavirus is very contagious, in part because the virus can live a long time outside the body. The virus is found in the stool of a person before, during, and after the time the person has diarrhea. Because of this extended time of viral shedding, a person can pass on the virus even when he or she has no symptoms. Not washing a child's hands can lead to the virus contaminating other objects, such as toys. Other children can then become infected if they also touch these contaminated objects. Parents 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. 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 under the age of 3.

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

Rotavirus infection is most common during the winter. The months with the highest numbers of infection are between November and April.


Symptoms generally appear two to three days after a child is infected. The first symptoms are fever, an upset stomach, and vomiting. 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 to discuss your concerns about possible dehydration.


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-washing 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 (or long enough to sing the ABCs), 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 infection must be closely monitored, however, because in young children the diarrhea can cause dehydration. Keeping a record of the number of times your child has urinated will be helpful in your discussion with your child's health care provider regarding dehydration. Young babies should have some urine every six hours at minimum, and older children should urinate at least every eight hours. Call your child's health care provider right away if you think your child is becoming 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 for children older than six months. A lot of  fruit juices or soft drinks can make the diarrhea worse because of the amount of sugar they contain.

Your doctor may recommend an oral rehydration solution.

If you are breastfeeding your child, continue to do so throughout the illness.

If your child is vomiting, offer smaller amounts of clear fluids more frequently. Don't give medication for vomiting or diarrhea unless your health care provider recommends it. Imodium should not be given to children under 2 years of age.

Using rehydration solution

If you use a commercially made product, look for a true rehydration solution, such as Pedialyte or something similar. Don't use sports drinks for young children because these contain too much sugar and not enough electrolytes.

Check with your health care provider for the recommended dose for your child.