What Is Rotavirus?

If you look at a rotavirus through a microscope, it has a round shape. The Latin word for wheel is “rota,” which explains how the virus got its name.

This easily spread virus causes inflammation in the stomach and intestines. From late winter to early spring, it can cause severe diarrhea, vomiting, fever, abdominal pain, and dehydration in infants, young children, and some adults.

While there are medications to help with the symptoms, there is no medicine that can cure rotavirus. Even children who have been vaccinated against rotavirus may still get it more than once.

How Do You Get It?

If your child has rotavirus, it's present in their poop before symptoms start and up to 10 days after they taper off. During that time, when your child wipes after using the toilet, rotavirus can spread to his hands.

If he doesn't wash his hands, the virus can spread to everything he touches, including things such as:

  • Crayons and markers
  • Food
  • Surfaces such as sinks and kitchen counters
  • Toys, including shared electronics such as iPads and remote controls
  • Utensils
  • Water

If you touch your child's unwashed hands or any object he’s contaminated and then touch your mouth, you can be infected as well.

Disinfecting is key: Rotavirus can live on surfaces and objects for weeks.

Who Is More Likely to Get This?

Anyone can get rotavirus, but it most commonly affects:

  • Infants
  • Young children
  • Close relatives
  • Those who work with children, such as nannies or child-care employees

Symptoms

If your child has been exposed to rotavirus, symptoms won't show up for about 2 days. It usually starts with a fever, vomiting, and stomach pain, which fades just as diarrhea begins. As the virus works its way through your child's system, the diarrhea can hang on for 5 to 7 days.

Adults often have similar symptoms, but they tend to be less severe.

When to Call a Doctor

Check in with your doctor if your child has the following symptoms:

  • Lethargy and drinking less fluids
  • Frequent vomiting
  • Stools that are black or contain blood or pus
  • Any temperature in a baby younger than 6 months
  • A temperature for more than 24 hours, if your child is older than 6 months

Continued

With all the vomiting and diarrhea, your child may not feel like eating or drinking. This can cause your child to get dehydrated, which might even become life-threatening and require him being put in the hospital.

Older adults, especially those with other illnesses or conditions, might also get dehydrated.

Call your doctor if you notice any combination of these symptoms of dehydration:

Diagnosis

Your doctor will likely base a diagnosis on a physical exam and questions about symptoms.

In some cases, he may have a lab analyze a sample of your child’s stool.

Treatments

There's no specific medicine to treat rotavirus. Antibiotics can't touch it and neither can antiviral drugs.

Your doctor may suggest medicine to help with the symptoms. Ask about rehydration fluids to replace minerals lost through vomiting and diarrhea.

At-Home Care

Rotavirus usually works its way through your child's system over the course of a week. During that time, give your child plenty of fluids to offset dehydration, including:

  • Water
  • Broth
  • Ginger ale, or clear sodas
  • Ice chips

Bland foods, such as crackers, are best. Steer clear of apple juice, milk, cheese, sugary foods, and anything else that might increase vomiting or diarrhea.

Prevention

Frequent hand washing and disinfecting surfaces helps, but nothing is a guarantee.

The CDC recommends getting your child vaccinated against rotavirus. This will make him less likely to get it and, if he does get it, the symptoms will be less severe.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on January 28, 2017

Sources

SOURCES:

CDC: "Rotavirus."

Mayo Clinic: "Rotavirus."

Cleveland Clinic Children's: "Rotavirus."

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