What is Rotavirus?

What is Rotavirus?

Rotavirus is the leading cause of diarrhea in infants and children in the United States. It is a viral infection that affects the intestinal tract (also called gastroenteritis) and is very contagious especially among areas with many children. If unvaccinated, most children will have at least one case of rotavirus before the age of 3. November through April are the most common months for rotavirus infections.

The virus is spread through minuscule amounts of fecal matter which is why it is important to wash children’s hands thoroughly and often. If hands are not washed properly, anything an infected child touches, including doorknobs, toys, and mats will leave traces that may infect other children. Rotavirus can survive for several days without a host if the surface it is on has not been cleaned and disinfected.

Symptoms of Rotavirus

Although most cases of rotavirus are found among young children, older children and adults can also contract this foodborne illness. After initial contact, symptoms appear within 1 to 2 days. Symptoms and signs of rotavirus include:

  • Vomiting
  • Fever
  • Runny diarrhea

The greatest concern when children have rotavirus is that they may become dehydrated. Keep giving your child fluids and liquid foods to consume to prevent dehydration. For very young infants, look out for these signs of dehydration.

  • Decrease in urine or frequency of urination
  • Very dry eyes and dry mouth
  • Especially fussy
  • Difficult to wake up

Typically, cases of rotavirus resolve itself with rest and hydration within 3 to 9 days. Adults who get rotavirus have less severe symptoms compared to children. Also, vaccinated children will usually have less severe cases. However, previous contraction of rotavirus or vaccination does not mean you cannot get the illness again. If you see the following symptoms of severe rotavirus, contact a doctor.

  • Black stool containing blood or pus
  • Fever temperature of 104°F+
  • Frequent vomiting
  • Over 24 hours of diarrhea

Treatment for Rotavirus

The best treatment for rotavirus is to drink plenty of fluids and rest. Doctors will not prescribe antibiotics as they have no effect on viruses, only bacterial infections. Most infections will go away without medical attention from a doctor within 3 to 9 days. However, 1 in 40 children who contract rotavirus have severe symptoms and will need intravenous fluid treatment at a hospital to prevent dehydration.

It is important NOT to give electrolyte sports drinks such as Gatorade to young children as they do not have the right set of nutrients appropriate for children.

Rotavirus Cause and Prevention

Although the source of rotavirus is not from foods, it is still considered a foodborne illness as it can be transmitted by people through food. Rotavirus is considered a fecal-mouth transmission disease meaning it is caused by people who are infected with rotavirus improperly washing their hands and touching foods or objects that other people come in contact with. Foods that are most commonly associated with rotavirus transmission are cold foods that are ready-to-eat but may be handled beforehand such as salads and sandwiches.

Children are highly susceptible to rotavirus infections especially when they are around groups of other children. It is sometimes difficult to clean children’s hands thoroughly and many young children are have not yet learned the importance of washing hands or not touching their faces frequently. It is important for daycares and schools to disinfect surfaces so that rotavirus and other pathogens are not living and threatening to infect individuals.

Infants can be protected from rotavirus with a vaccine. Rotavirus vaccinations are shown to protect 7 out of 10 children from the illness. Vaccines are administered orally.

Additionally, general cleanliness and thorough handwashing are the best measures against any foodborne illness. Food handlers who have signs of rotavirus or any cause of gastroenteritis should be removed from food prep or the proximity of any food for service. Children who have upset stomach should be kept home for treatment until well to prevent spreading any illnesses to peers.

For other causes of food poisoning, please visit our Foodborne Illness page.