What Is Rotavirus?

sick baby
If you have a child, make sure you know about Rotavirus. Ariel Skelley/Blend Images/Getty Images

Rotavirus is a serious illness that affects young children. It causes severe diarrhea, which is one of the leading causes of death among young children around the world. Most deaths are due to dehydration among children in underdeveloped countries in sub-Saharan Africa or Southern Asia. People around the world get this virus though. It is one of the main causes of gastrointestinal illness or "stomach flu".


Rotavirus primarily affects children under the age of 5, although anyone can get it. Symptoms usually are less severe for older children and adults. 


Common symptoms of rotavirus include:

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea (often watery and frequent)
  • Stomach cramps or abdominal pain
  • Fever

If your child has rotavirus (or any other cause of vomiting and diarrhea), it's important to know what the signs of dehydration are. Be sure to watch for:

  • Urinating less frequently
  • Dry mouth or increased thirst
  • Lethargy or acting more tired and less playful than usual
  • Dizziness when standing (this can be difficult to determine in a young child)
  • No tears when crying
  • Dry, cool skin
  • Sunken eyes or soft spot on top of the head

If you notice any of these signs, contact your child's health care provider or seek medical attention. Many cases of rotavirus can be managed at home but some children need to be hospitalized and receive IV fluids to treat dehydration.


What You Can Do

Unfortunately rotavirus is highly contagious and difficult to prevent. Even with good hand washing and proper disinfecting, it spreads quickly among young children, in families and in child care settings. Washing your hands well is always a good thing, but it does not seem to greatly reduce the chances of spreading rotavirus.

The virus can also live on hands for several hours and on objects such as tables and doorknobs for days. 

There is a rotavirus vaccine available for infants starting at 2 months old. The vaccine is given by mouth, it is not an injection or shot. Although it does not provide 100% immunity against rotavirus, it drastically reduces your child's chances of getting the virus and becoming seriously ill from it. It is given in either 2 or 3 doses, depending on the brand that your child's health care provider offers. The vaccine provides the best protection we have against this virus and has been proven safe in both clinical trials and routine use since initial FDA approval in 2006 (RotaTeq) and 2008 (Rotarix).

If your child is vomiting or had diarrhea, try to keep her hydrated. Don't try to get her to drink a lot of fluids all at once, especially if she is vomiting, but continually sipping on water or an electrolyte drink (such as Gatorade or Pedialyte) will reduce the chances that she will become dehydrated.

If your child is unable to keep any fluids down, even small sips, seek medical attention. 


"About Rotavirus". Rotavirus 12 May 14. National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, Division of Viral Diseases. US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Department of Health and Human Services. 30 Nov 15. 

"Rotavirus and the Vaccine (Drops) To Prevention It". Vaccines and Immunizations. Fact Sheet for Parents. 10 Nov 14. National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Department of Health and Human Services. 30 Nov 15. 

"Frequently Asked Questions About Rotavirus". Infectious Disease Information. National Foundation for Infectious Diseases. 30 Nov 15. 

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