What to Know About Rotavirus

Medically Reviewed by Zilpah Sheikh, MD on June 17, 2024
6 min read

Rotavirus is a virus that causes diarrhea and other intestinal symptoms. It’s very contagious and is the most common cause of diarrhea in infants and young children worldwide. 

Rotavirus causes inflammation in the stomach and intestines. It can cause serious diarrhea, vomiting, fever, belly pain, and dehydration in infants, young children, and some adults.

Medications can help with the symptoms, but there’s no cure for rotavirus. Even children who've been vaccinated against it may get it more than once.

Rotavirus vs. norovirus

Both rotavirus and norovirus are infections that bring symptoms like diarrhea and vomiting. But they're caused by different viruses. Unlike norovirus, rotavirus mostly affects children. With rotavirus, you could be sick for up to 8 days. But norovirus usually lasts only 1-3 days. There's no vaccine for norovirus. 

If your child has come into contact with rotavirus, symptoms won't show up for about 2 days. Then, they’ll have:

  • Fever, vomiting, and stomach pain. Rotavirus usually starts with these symptoms, which then fade away.
  • Diarrhea begins after the first three symptoms have stopped. As the virus works its way through your child's system, the diarrhea can hang on for 5-8 days.

Call your doctor if your child has:

  • Lethargy
  • Frequent vomiting
  • Less desire to drink fluids
  • Poop that's black or contains blood or pus
  • Any high temperature in a baby younger than 6 months
  • A high temperature for more than 24 hours in a child older than 6 months

With all the vomiting and diarrhea, your child may not feel like eating or drinking. This can make them dehydrated, which might even become life-threatening. Older adults, especially those with other illnesses or conditions, could also get dehydrated.

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

  • Anxiousness
  • Crying with no tears
  • Little peeing or dry diapers
  • Dizziness
  • Dry mouth and throat
  • Excess sleepiness
  • Pale skin
  • Sunken eyes

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

How to know if it's rotavirus or food poisoning

Both conditions can cause diarrhea, vomiting, and fever, so it can be hard to tell them apart. But food poisoning symptoms tend to come on suddenly, within 3-6 hours after you consume contaminated food or water.

 Rotavirus symptoms, on the other hand, usually build up gradually. Rotavirus symptoms can last up to 3 days, while those of food poisoning pass more quickly.

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 workers

The illness is caused by a type of virus that was named rotavirus for its wheel-like appearance under a microscope. The Latin word for wheel is “rota.” 

These viruses are found throughout the world, and they spread easily from person to person. The virus invades and destroys cells in your intestinal lining called enterocytes, which help you absorb nutrients from food.  This triggers the diarrhea that is a hallmark of rotavirus.

If your child has rotavirus, it's 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 their hands. If they don't wash their hands, they might contaminate anything they touch, including:

  • 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 they’ve contaminated and then touch your mouth, you can be infected.

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

In the U.S., children are more likely get get rotavirus in the winter and spring, probably because that's when they spend more time indoors.

You can get rotavirus more than once, even if you've had the vaccine for it. But once you've had it, any further infections are likely to be less serious.


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

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

There's no specific medicine to treat rotavirus. Antibiotics can't touch it, and antiviral drugs don’t help.

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

Rotavirus usually works its way through your child's system over the course of a week. During that time, give them 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 make vomiting or diarrhea worse. Also avoid sugary sports drinks.

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

Rotavirus vaccine

The best way to protect your child is to get them vaccinated against rotavirus. About 70%-80% of kids who get the vaccine will be fully protected against the virus. And those who do get it will have much less serious symptoms. Your child should get the first dose of either vaccine before they're 15 weeks old, and should have all doses before age 8 months

Doctors don't give these vaccines as shots, but as drops they put in your child's mouth. There are two types of vaccines:

  • RotaTeq. This is given in three doses. Ideally, they're given at ages 2 months, 4 months, and 6 months.
  • Rotarix. This type is given in  two doses, at ages 2 months and 4 months. 

Extensive clinical testing found both types to be safe and effective. The vaccine has few side effects, but some babies might have mild diarrhea or vomiting that soon goes away. 

Rarely, the vaccine can cause intussusception, which is when the bowel folds back on itself. This can lead to an intestinal blockage that can be very serious. The vaccine isn't recommended for children who've previously had intussusception.

Thorough hand-washing can help prevent the spread of rotavirus and other viruses that cause intestinal symptoms. Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and water:

  • After you change a child's diaper
  • After you use the bathroom
  • After you help a child use the bathroom
  • Before you eat or prepare food

Encourage your children to wash their hands often as soon as they're old enough. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers don't stop the spread of rotavirus.

Other steps you can take:

  • Regularly disinfect toys and surfaces that are often touched, like tabletops, doorknobs, and kitchen counters.
  • When you clean up vomit or diarrhea, use a solution that contains bleach.
  • If vomit or diarrhea gets on your child's clothes (or yours), wash them right away.
  • Take care when handling and disposing of dirty diapers. 



Rotavirus is a very common and very contagious viral infection that most often affects children. It causes diarrhea and vomiting, which can be serious and could lead to dehydration. A vaccine can protect your child against rotavirus. 


How long does rotavirus last? 

If you have rotavirus, you could be sick for 3-8 days.

Is rotavirus contagious? 

Rotavirus is very contagious and is most often spread by hand-to-mouth contact. Before vaccines were available, most kids gotrotavirus by the time they were 5 years old. 

Can adults get rotavirus?

Adults can get rotavirus but usually have very mild symptoms, if they have any at all. Some adults are at higher risk of getting sick, including those with weakened immune systems and those over 65

What kills rotavirus?

Disinfectant cleaners can kill the rotavirus, but it's hard to prevent infection just with disinfecting and hand-washing. The virus can live on surfaces and objects for several days. 

How can you cure rotavirus?

There's no cure for rotavirus, and there's no medication to treat it. But a vaccine can prevent it.