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Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 3 minutes read

Rotavirus is a very contagious virus that causes diarrhea. It mostly affects children under 5 years, and it's usually mild enough to just be treated at home. This is different to toddler's diarrhea. Early symptoms include a temperature, vomiting, and then 3 to 7 days of watery diarrhea. They may also get abdominal pain and cramps.

It takes about 2 days after being exposed to the virus for symptoms to start. Even after the other symptoms have resolved, loose stools can last for up to 10 days, although hopefully improving in that time. It's so common that most children in the US have had it by 5 years old.

Older children and adults can also catch rotavirus, but in adults, it's usually a milder illness. They should still be cautious about not infecting others, though.

How can I prevent rotavirus?

One way to prevent your child from catching rotavirus is to make sure that they wash their hands after going to the bathroom and before eating. Another way is to ensure your child is vaccinated with the rotavirus vaccine. Being viral in nature means there is no treatment for the infection, we would be just managing the symptoms, which is why the vaccine is one of the best preventative measures.

It's easily passed on within a household, so if one of your children has it, keep them to a separate bathroom where possible, wash everyone's hands regularly, and avoid sharing cutlery or cups, clothes, or towels.

How is rotavirus treated in children?

If your child does get rotavirus, they have to stay at home while they have symptoms and for an extra 2 days after they have recovered, to ensure they are no longer contagious to others.

Antibiotics will not work when your child has rotavirus, as they only work on bacteria, and there aren't antivirals available for this.

You need to ensure that – even if they're not eating much – they must stay hydrated. They will be losing fluids and salts from their fever and diarrhea, so it's a good idea to encourage as much drinking as possible, and add in products like oral rehydration sachets to restore their mineral balance. Medicines like Dioralyte and O.R.S are formulated to perfectly replenish the right amount of electrolytes lost.

Avoid dairy products, spicy food, sugary foods, or anything too heavy, as this can worsen the diarrhea. Eat light foods such as bland soups and dry toast until symptoms have resolved.

When should we see their doctor?

You should be concerned if your child has constant vomiting and can't keep any fluids down. If they are having reduced feeding, a persistently raised temperature, or they are drowsy and difficult to keep awake, you should seek urgent medical attention. 

If their diarrhea lasts longer than 48 hours, you should speak with your doctor for further advice. 

What about the rotavirus vaccine? 

This is an oral vaccine that is part of the normal immunization program for children and is highly effective in reducing infection rates. There are two products available, consisting of either 2 or 3 doses, given at 2 months, 4 months (and 6 months for the 3-dose product), and it's delivered by drops in their mouth. If the first dose has been missed, it can be taken by 15 weeks and the next one 4 weeks later, and provides years-long protection while they build up their immunity.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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