Frequently Asked Questions About Rotavirus

 

What is Rotavirus?

Rotavirus is a highly contagious virus that infects nearly all children by their fifth birthday. It is often accompanied by fever, vomiting as well as diarrhea. Rotavirus is not the only cause of severe diarrhea, but it is one of the most common and serious.

While many cases are mild, others can be severe, leading to dehydration. Dehydration can be a serious medical condition.

Children are most likely to get rotavirus disease between November and May, depending on the part of the country in which they reside.

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Why can dehydration be serious for infants and small children?

The rapid loss of fluids that accompanies vomiting and diarrhea can lead to dehydration, during which the body does not have the water and salts (or electrolytes) it needs. Babies under one year of age, and especially those who have a fever, become dehydrated most easily because of their smaller body weights. It is sometimes necessary for children to be rehydrated using intravenous fluids. In the most severe cases of dehydration, a child may even develop convulsions or go into shock, which in rare cases can be life threatening.

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What are other symptoms of rotavirus?

Rotavirus often begins with a mild fever and is followed by vomiting and an upset stomach, as well as increased amounts of watery diarrhea many times a day. Anyone caring for small children should know the symptoms of rotavirus, including:

  • Frequent, watery diarrhea (often foul-smelling, green or brown)
  • Frequent vomiting
  • Fever
  • Abdominal pain

The following are signs of dehydration:

  • Lethargy (child won't focus on you, is less responsive to touch or words)
  • Less frequent urination
  • No tears when crying
  • Dry, cool skin
  • Dry or sticky mouth
  • Sunken eyes or sunken soft spot on top of the head
  • Extreme thirst

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What should I do if I think my child is experiencing rotavirus symptoms?

If you think your child is experiencing rotavirus you should call your child's doctor. Rotavirus in young children and babies can be very upsetting for parents as well as for the child, so quick recognition of its symptoms is very important. In a severe case, a child could have as many as 20 diarrheal stools or vomiting episodes in a 24-hour period.

Dehydration is one of the most significant potential complications for infected children. An infant or toddler may need to be treated with intravenous (IV) fluids in a hospital.

Home care therapy can be used to help manage uncomplicated cases of diarrhea. The child is typically given fluids, such as oral electrolyte solutions, to replace those lost through diarrhea and vomiting. Severe vomiting, however, can make such oral rehydration therapy (ORT) difficult. Discuss with your child's doctor if an office visit is necessary.

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How does rotavirus spread?

Rotavirus can be spread both before and after children show signs of being sick. Children can catch a rotavirus infection if they put their fingers in their mouths after touching something that has been contaminated by the stool of an infected person. Usually this happens when children forget to wash their hands often enough, especially before eating and after using the toilet.

People who care for children can also spread the virus, especially if they do not wash their hands after changing diapers. Rotavirus is resistant to most disinfectant cleaners, including anti-bacterial products. The virus can survive for a few hours on human hands and for days on hard and dry surfaces. As a result, rotavirus can be easily spread in families, and outbreaks can occur in childcare centers, playgroups, and hospitals.

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Can I keep my child from being exposed to rotavirus?

It is difficult to keep a child from being exposed to rotavirus. Better hygiene and sanitation have not been very good at reducing rotavirus disease. Because the virus is so widespread, even the cleanest environments can be infected. Children who have previously had rotavirus may be infected again, but repeat infections tend to be less severe.

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Is rotavirus just a kids' illness?

Adults can be infected with rotavirus, but they tend to have milder cases. Young children between the ages of six months and 24 months are at greatest risk for severe rotavirus disease. There's no reliable way to predict how rotavirus will affect your child. New and expecting parents should speak with their child's doctor at or before their first well baby visit.

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Note: Sections of the above FAQs have been adapted from the National Healthy Mothers, Health Babies Coalition Fast Facts on Rotavirus brochure (originally published October 2005) and the CDC Rotavirus Vaccine Information Statement

» CDC information about rotavirus and the vaccine