Rotavirus Infection: Causes, Symptoms and Treatment

Rotaviruses are the most common cause of acute diarrhea in babies and young children worldwide. Infection with these viruses is highly contagious and spreads through oral contact with an infected person’s stool, including contaminated hands, objects, and surfaces. Symptoms typically start about 1-3 days after contact with the virus and may lead to severe dehydration and hospitalization. However, most infections resolve in 3-8 days.

What are rotaviruses?

Rotaviruses are very contagious viruses that affect the gut (digestive tract). Specifically, they infect cells that cover the inside of the small intestine, leading to viral gastroenteritis.

Gastroenteritis, or inflammation of the stomach and the intestines, results in diarrheal illness. Many different viruses can cause gastroenteritis, including noroviruses. However, rotaviruses are the most common cause of viral gastroenteritis globally in children under five years old.

Because there is more than one type of rotavirus, people can get infected more than once. However, the first infection is usually more severe than future infections.

How do rotaviruses spread?

Rotaviruses are found in an infected person’s feces (stool) and enter the body through the mouth. In other words, someone can get a rotavirus infection if they accidentally swallow tiny bits of feces containing the virus from another person. These particles are usually invisible.

Rotaviruses spread very quickly, mainly through direct contact between people. For example, a child can become infected by putting unwashed hands into the mouth after contact with the hands of an infected caregiver or child. Another way rotaviruses spread is by putting unclean hands in the mouth after touching contaminated objects or surfaces such as toys, diapers, and doorknobs. Rarely, rotaviruses also spread through contaminated food or water.

Although rotaviruses can spread anywhere, outbreaks most often occur in daycare or household settings, usually due to children not washing their hands after using the bathroom.

Who can get sick from rotaviruses?

Anyone can get sick from rotavirus infection. However, rotaviruses most commonly affect babies and children less than three years old worldwide. Although adults can also get infected, especially while caring for a child infected with rotavirus, older adults and adults with weak immune systems are more likely to get sick and experience severe symptoms.

What symptoms do rotavirus infections cause?

Symptoms of rotavirus infection usually begin about 1-3 days after coming in contact with the virus but may appear sooner. Once symptoms start, they typically last for about 3-8 days.

The main symptoms of rotavirus infection in children are:

  • Watery diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Abdominal pain
  • Fever

Adults with rotavirus infection typically have symptoms similar to those in children. However, the symptoms are usually milder. Additionally, some adults may experience a general feeling of being unwell (malaise) and headaches. Other adults may have no symptoms at all.

In children, the loss of body fluids through diarrhea, vomiting, and fever more frequently leads to severe dehydration. Signs of dehydration in a baby or young child may include:

  • Dry mouth and tongue
  • Lack of tears when crying
  • Extreme thirst
  • Not wetting diapers for 3 hours or more or urinating less than usual
  • Sunken eyes or cheeks
  • A high fever
  • Unusual drowsiness or sleepiness
  • Lack of energy
  • Irritability

How do you treat rotavirus infection?

There are no specific medications for rotavirus infection, and antibiotics aren’t helpful because it’s a viral illness. However, treatments are available that aim to relieve symptoms and prevent dehydration. In addition to rest, the primary treatment is rehydration, which means drinking enough liquids to replace the fluids and electrolytes lost through diarrhea and vomiting.

In some cases, healthcare providers may also recommend oral rehydration solutions available over the counter. Additionally, they may prescribe or recommend over-the-counter medications to help control diarrhea (antidiarrheal medications). A parent or caregiver should only give antidiarrheal medicines to a child if a healthcare provider recommends them.

If vomiting and diarrhea are severe, treating dehydration may be challenging if a child cannot keep fluids or oral rehydration solutions down long enough for the body to absorb them. In these cases, a child may need to go to the hospital to receive IV fluids.

Is there a rotavirus vaccine?

Yes, two safe and effective vaccines protect against rotavirus infection in babies and young children. Specifically, studies show that the rotavirus vaccine reduces the chance of overall illness by 74-87% and severe disease by 85-98% during the first year of a child’s life.

Both rotavirus vaccines are given to babies orally (by putting drops in the child’s mouth). Depending on the brand, the vaccine is administered in three doses at 2, 4, and 6 months or in two doses at 2 and 4 months. Children should receive the first dose of either vaccine before they turn 15 weeks old and all doses of either vaccine before they turn 8 months old.

Conclusion

Globally, rotavirus infection is the main cause of acute diarrhea in babies and young children. The infection is highly contagious and can result in severe dehydration. Adults may also get infected with rotavirus, but the illness is usually milder, and some experience no symptoms.

If a child has signs of dehydration, contact a healthcare provider immediately.

Key takeaways:

Rotaviruses are highly contagious. Infection with these viruses is the most common cause of severe, dehydrating diarrhea globally in children under five years old.

The primary way that children get rotavirus infection is by putting their hands in their mouth after contact with an infected person’s feces (stool).

Symptoms of infection commonly include severe watery diarrhea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. In some cases, fever may also occur.

Most rotavirus infections resolve in about 3-8 days with rest and fluids.

Resources:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Rotavirus.

Frontiers in Immunology. Rotavirus Interactions with Host Intestinal Epithelial Cells.

Merck Manuals. Rotavirus Gastroenteritis.

National Library of Medicine – MedlinePlus. Dehydration.

National Library of Medicine – MedlinePlus. Rotavirus Vaccine.

The Lancet Infectious Diseases. Rotavirus Infection in Adults.

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