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Rotavirus Infection

by Mary T. Caserta, MD

Rotavirus is a common and contagious virus that causes vomiting and diarrhea.

Rotavirus is one of the most common causes of diarrhea in children. In the United States, about 50,000 children each year are hospitalized for diarrhea caused by rotavirus. Although hardly any children die in the United States from rotavirus, worldwide the virus causes over 600,000 deaths a year, mostly in developing countries. Infection is spread mainly by swallowing material contaminated by the virus. Adults can become infected, but serious illness is rare.

Symptoms begin with fever and vomiting, followed by watery diarrhea, which typically lasts 5 to 7 days. If fluid losses are not replaced, dehydration develops. Dehydration makes the child weak and listless, with a dry mouth and rapid pulse.

Doctors do not usually perform tests to detect rotavirus unless they are trying to identify an outbreak. When necessary, samples of stool are sent for a rapid antigen test.

Practicing good hygiene is the best preventive measure. A sick child and the people in the household should wash their hands frequently. In addition, an oral vaccine to prevent rotavirus infection is now recommended to be given at ages 2, 4, and 6 months.

There is no specific treatment for rotavirus. Most children get better with fluid replacement by mouth (see see Gastroenteritis in Children). Seriously ill children require fluids given by vein (intravenously).