Almost all kids have had a rotavirus infection by the time
they're 5 years old. Rotavirus is one of the most common causes
, and severe infection (rotavirus gastroenteritis) is the leading
cause of severe, dehydrating diarrhea in infants and young
Rotavirus infections are responsible for approximately 3 million
cases of diarrhea and 55,000 hospitalizations for diarrhea and
in children under 5 years old each year in the United States.
Although these infections cause relatively few U.S. deaths,
diarrhea caused by rotavirus causes more than half a million deaths
worldwide every year. This is especially true in developing
countries, where nutrition and health care are not optimal.
Signs and Symptoms
Children with a rotavirus infection have
, nausea, and
, often followed by abdominal cramps and frequent, watery diarrhea.
Kids may also have a cough and runny nose. As with all viruses,
though, some rotavirus infections cause few or no symptoms,
especially in adults.
Sometimes the diarrhea that accompanies a rotavirus infection is
so severe that it can quickly lead to dehydration. Signs of
dehydration include: thirst, irritability, restlessness, lethargy,
sunken eyes, a dry mouth and tongue, dry skin, fewer trips to the
bathroom to urinate, and (in infants) a dry diaper for several
In the United States, rotavirus infection outbreaks are common
during the winter and spring months. It is particularly a problem
in child-care centers and children's hospitals because
rotavirus infection is very contagious.
The virus passes in the stool of infected persons before and
after they have symptoms of the illness. Kids can become infected
if they put their fingers in their mouths after touching something
that has been contaminated. Usually this happens when kids
wash their hands
often enough, especially before eating and after using the
People who care for children, including health-care and
child-care workers, can also spread the virus, especially if they
do not wash their hands after changing diapers.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) now recommends that the
rotavirus vaccine be included in the lineup of routine
immunizations given to all infants. The recommendation calls for
three doses by mouth at around 2, 4, and 6 months of age.
The vaccine, called RotaTeq, has been found to prevent
approximately 75% of cases of rotavirus infection and 98% of severe
cases. Your doctor will have the most current information.
A previous rotavirus vaccine was taken off the market in 1999
because it was linked to an increased risk for intussusception, a
type of bowel obstruction, in young infants. In more than 70,000
children studied, RotaTeq has not been found to have this increased
Frequent hand washing is the best tool to limit the spread of
rotavirus infection. Kids who are infected should stay home from
child-care groups until their diarrhea has ended. In hospitals,
rotavirus outbreaks are controlled by isolating infected patients
and ordering strict hand-washing procedures.
An infant or toddler who becomes moderately or severely
dehydrated may need to be treated in a hospital with intravenous
(IV) fluids to bring the body's fluid and salt levels back to
normal. Most older kids can be treated at home.
Your doctor may need to test your child's blood, urine, or
to confirm that the diarrhea is being caused by rotavirus and not
by bacteria. Because antibiotics do not work against illnesses
caused by viruses, your doctor will not give your child antibiotics
to treat a rotavirus infection.
To prevent dehydration, follow your doctor's guidance about
what your child should eat and drink. Your doctor may suggest that
you give your child special drinks that replace body fluids,
especially if the diarrhea has been going on for longer than 2 or 3
In general, kids with mild diarrhea who are not dehydrated
should continue to eat normally but should receive more fluids.
(Fruit juices and soft drinks can make diarrhea worse and should be
avoided.) Those who have mild to moderate dehydration should be
given an oral rehydration solution in small, frequent amounts to
correct the dehydration and then should go back to eating normally.
Children who are breastfed should be breastfed throughout.
A child who is vomiting will need to eat smaller amounts more
frequently. Follow your doctor's guidance and avoid giving your
child store-bought medicines for vomiting or diarrhea unless your
doctor recommends them.
When to Call the Doctor
Call the doctor for advice if your child has signs of a
rotavirus infection, including watery diarrhea, fever, nausea, and
vomiting. Call immediately if your child is showing signs of
Larissa Hirsch, MD
Date reviewed: December 2006
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice,
diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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