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What is rotavirus, and what causes it?

Rotavirus is a virus that infects the intestinal tract of almost all young children by age 5. Children can get rotavirus more than once, but the first infection is usually the worst. Most children get sick from rotavirus by age 2. This infection causes stomach upset and diarrhea.

Babies and very young children with rotavirus infections need to be watched closely, because they can become dehydrated very quickly. Dehydration occurs when the body loses water more quickly than it is replaced. When your child becomes dehydrated, severe health problems can arise.

Rotavirus infections spread easily. Outbreaks usually occur in the winter and early spring. Rotavirus infections often spread in settings where many children are together, such as daycare centres.

The virus spreads through contact with the stools from an infected child. The virus can spread easily even when people try very hard to keep places clean. For example, when a caregiver changes the messy diaper of a child who has rotavirus infection, germs can get on the changing table, the caregiver's hands, or the hands of the already infected child. The rotavirus germs can then spread to other children from the caregiver's or child's unwashed hands. It may be only a few steps to the sink, but the germs may get on surfaces that the caregiver or child touches along the way. For example, the germs may get on toys, doorknobs, or sink surfaces. The germs can live for days on objects and surfaces if they are not disinfected right away.

Other children who get the rotavirus germs on their hands can get the infection when they put their hands in their mouths. They can also get infected with rotavirus by chewing on a toy that has the germs on it.

What are the symptoms?

It takes about 1 to 2 days for a child who is exposed to the rotavirus germs to start having symptoms.

Vomiting is often the first symptom. Usually, a fever and diarrhea follow. Most children with rotavirus have very watery diarrhea that seems like a large amount for a baby or small child. The most severe diarrhea lasts 4 to 8 days. But episodes of diarrhea can last long after your child starts feeling better. In some children, diarrhea can last for a few weeks.

Diarrhea, especially when it occurs along with vomiting, can quickly lead to dehydration in babies and young children who have rotavirus. For this reason, it is important to keep feeding your baby breast milk or formula.

Watch your child closely for signs of dehydration, such as having only 1 wet diaper in a 12-hour period. Call your doctor right away if you think your child may be dehydrated.

How is rotavirus diagnosed?

Your doctor will probably diagnose your child with rotavirus infection based on his or her symptoms. The time of year also is an important clue. If your child has diarrhea and other symptoms during the winter or early spring (about November through April), your doctor will often suspect rotavirus as the cause.

A test of stool can be done to confirm a diagnosis. This kind of test is not needed unless your child has other health conditions that make it important to know the exact cause of symptoms.

How is it treated?

It is most important to help keep your child comfortable and prevent dehydration.

Hold your child as much as he or she wants. Keep your child in comfortable clothes, and change his or her diaper or underpants as needed. Your child may get a diaper rash. To treat diaper rash, you may need to use warm face cloths to wipe your child's bottom and creams to help prevent soreness. In some cases, you may want to hold your baby and rinse his or her bottom in running bath water to clean the area well.

Don't give your child any over-the-counter medicines unless you've checked with the doctor first.

To prevent dehydration, your doctor may recommend a rehydration drink designed for babies and young children, such as Pedialyte. This may be especially helpful if your child's diarrhea lasts longer than a few days. Rehydration drinks help replace fluids and electrolytes. Plain water doesn't provide necessary nutrients or electrolytes and may not be absorbed when your child has diarrhea. Rehydration drinks do not make diarrhea go away faster, but they can prevent serious dehydration. For more information, see the topic Dehydration.

Do not give your baby or young child rehydration drinks for adults or sports drinks, such as Gatorade. These drinks do not have the proper balance of nutrients and electrolytes for small children.

A baby or young child needs to be treated in a hospital if dehydration becomes severe. Call 911 or go to the emergency room if your baby has signs of severe dehydration, which include:

  • A lack of interest in playing and extreme sleepiness. (The child may be so sleepy that it is hard to wake him or her up.)
  • A dry mouth and tongue.
  • A sunken soft spot (fontanel) on top of the head.
  • Sunken eyes without tears.
  • Fast breathing and rapid heartbeat.
  • No wet diapers (a dry diaper) for 12 or more hours.

Can I prevent my child from getting rotavirus?

It is hard to prevent your child from getting this infection. Studies show that breast-feeding may help prevent rotavirus or reduce its severity.

Rotavirus vaccine helps protect against rotavirus disease. The rotavirus vaccine is recommended for children younger than 32 weeks. Children should get a total of 3 doses, at around 2, 4, and 6 months of age. The vaccine is swallowed rather than given as a shot. Not all provincial or territorial health plans cover the cost of the rotavirus vaccine.

To help prevent the spread of rotavirus, wash your hands thoroughly and often.

Other Places To Get Help


Canadian Paediatric Society
2305 Saint Laurent Boulevard
Ottawa, ON  K1G 4J8
Phone: (613) 526-9397
Fax: (613) 526-3332
Web Address:

The Canadian Paediatric Society (CPS) promotes quality health care for Canadian children and establishes guidelines for paediatric care. The organization offers educational materials on a variety of topics, including information on immunizations, pregnancy, safety issues, and teen health.

Canadian Paediatric Society
2305 Saint Laurent Blvd.
Ottawa, Ontario K1G 4J8
Phone: Phone: 613-526-9397
Fax: Fax: 613-526-3322
Web Address:

Caring for Kids is produced by the Canadian Paediatric Society, a national association that advocates for the health needs of children and youth

Health Canada
A.L. 0900C2
Ottawa, ON  K1A 0K9
Phone: (613) 957-2991
Fax: (613) 941-5366
Web Address:


Other Works Consulted

  • American Academy of Pediatrics (2009). Rotavirus infections. In LK Pickering et al., eds., Red Book: 2009 Report of the Committee on Infectious Diseases, 28th ed., pp. 576–579. Elk Grove Village, IL: American Academy of Pediatrics.
  • Bass DM (2007). Rotaviruses, caliciviruses, and astroviruses. In RM Kliegman et al., eds., Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics, 18th ed., pp. 1399–1401. Philadelphia: Saunders Elsevier.
  • Clark HF, et al. (2008). Rotavirus vaccines. In SA Plotkin et al., eds., Vaccines, 5th ed., section 2, pp. 715–734. Philadelphia: Saunders Elsevier.
  • Okoko AS, et al. (2003). Probiotics for treating infectious diarrhoea. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (4).
  • Sondheimer JM, Sundaram S (2009). Acute diarrhea section of Gastrointestinal tract. In WW Hay Jr et al., eds., Current Diagnosis and Treatment: Pediatrics, 19th ed., pp. 593–594. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Vesikari T, et al. (2006). Safety and efficacy of a pentavalent human bovine (WC3) reassortant rotavirus vaccine. New England Journal of Medicine, 354(1): 23–33.
  • Ward RL, et al. (2009). Rotaviruses. In RD Feigin et al., eds., Feigin and Cherry's Textbook of Pediatric Infectious Diseases, 6th ed., vol. 2, pp. 2245–2270. Philadelphia: Saunders Elsevier.


By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer John Pope, MD - Pediatrics
Primary Medical Reviewer Brian D. O'Brien, MD - Internal Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Chuck Norlin, MD, MD - Pediatrics
Last Revised September 3, 2010

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