Immunity develops with each infection, so subsequent infections are less severe; adults are rarely affected. There are nine species of the genus, referred to as A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H and I. Rotavirus A, the most common species, causes more than 90% of rotavirus infections in humans. The virus is transmitted by the fecal-oral route. It infects and damages the cells that line the small intestine and causes gastroenteritis (which is often called “stomach flu” despite having no relation to influenza).
Although Rotavirus was discovered in 1973 by Ruth Bishop and her colleagues by electron micrograph images and accounts for approximately one-third of hospitalizations for severe diarrhea in infants and children, its importance has historically been underestimated within the public health community, particularly in developing countries. In addition to its impact on human health, rotavirus also infects animals and is a pathogen of livestock.
Rotavirus symptoms in children
Symptoms of rotavirus tend to be most prominent in children. According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms can start within two days after being exposed to the rotavirus. The most common symptom of rotavirus is severe diarrhea. Children can also experience:
- Black or tarry stools
- Stools with blood or pus in them
- Severe fatigue
- A high fever
- Abdominal pain
Dehydration is the greatest concern in children. This age group is more vulnerable to a loss of electrolytes through vomiting and diarrhea because they have smaller body weights. You’ll need to monitor your child carefully for symptoms of dehydration, such as:
- Dry mouth
- Cool skin
- Lack of tears when crying
- Reduced urination frequency (or fewer wet diapers in infants)
- Sunken eyes
Rotavirus symptoms in adults
Adults might also experience some of the symptoms of rotavirus. However, many healthy adults experience them to a lesser degree. Some adults infected with rotavirus may not even experience any symptoms at all.
How long rotavirus lasts
During the infection, your child might first get a fever and vomit. Watery diarrhea can then occur between three and seven days thereafter. The infection itself can last for 10 days in your stool after your symptoms go away.
You may need to see a doctor if your symptoms don’t improve within a day or if they get worse. Rotavirus is diagnosed via a stool sample in a medical lab.
Rotavirus is transmitted between hand and mouth contact. If you touch a person or object carrying the virus and then touch your mouth, you could develop the infection. This is most common from not washing your hands after using the toilet or changing diapers.
Infants and children under 3 are at the highest risk for rotavirus infection. Being in daycare also raises their risk. You might consider taking extra precautions during winter and spring months, as more infections occur this time of year.
The virus can also remain on surfaces for a few weeks after an infected person touches them. This is why it’s crucial to disinfect all common surfaces in your home frequently, especially if a member of your household has rotavirus.
There aren’t any medications or treatments that will make the rotavirus go away. This includes antiviral medications, over-the-counter anti-diarrheal drugs, and antibiotics.
In terms of treatment, then, the goal is to stay hydrated and comfortable while the virus works its way out of your system. Here are a few tips for what to do in the meantime:
- Drink plenty of fluids.
- Eat broth-based soups.
- Take Pedialyte or other fluids with electrolytes (especially important for children).
- Eat a diet of bland foods, such as white toast and saltines.
- Avoid sugary or fatty foods as these can make diarrhea worse.
You should call 911 or seek emergency medical attention if your child has:
- Constant vomiting
- Frequent diarrhea for 24 hours or longer
- Inability to keep fluids down
- A fever of 104°F (40°C) or higher
- An unresponsive composure or signs of lethargy
Hospitalization is only required for infections that have caused severe dehydration. This is especially the case in children. Your doctor will administer intravenous (IV) fluids to help prevent life-threatening complications.
The rotavirus vaccine was first introduced in the market in 2006. Before this time, it was commonplace for young children to have at least one bout of rotavirus infection.
You can help prevent rotavirus and its complications by making sure your child gets vaccinated. The vaccine comes in two forms:
- Rotarix for infants 6 to 24 weeks old
- RotaTeq for infants 6 to 32 weeks old
Both of these vaccines are oral, which means they are administered by mouth, not with an injection.
There is no vaccine available for older children and adults. This is why health professionals recommend getting the rotavirus vaccine for your child at a young age while you can.
Although the rotavirus vaccine can help, no vaccine is 100 percent effective in preventing future infections. You can talk to your pediatrician about the risks versus benefits of this type of vaccine, and whether it’s the best preventive measure for your child. Babies with severe combined immunodeficiency or intussusception, or who are already severely ill shouldn’t get the vaccine.
Rare side effects of the vaccine include:
- Intussusception (very rare)
Severe dehydration is a serious complication of rotavirus. It’s also the most common cause of rotavirus-related deaths worldwide. Children are the most susceptible. You should call your pediatrician if your child exhibits any symptoms of rotavirus to help prevent complications.
Vaccinations are the best way to prevent rotavirus, especially in young children. You can also help prevent spreading the infection by washing your hands frequently and particularly before eating.
Frequently Asked Questions About Rotavirus
What is Rotavirus?
Rotavirus is a highly contagious virus that infects nearly all children by their fifth birthday. It is often accompanied by fever, vomiting as well as diarrhea. Rotavirus is not the only cause of severe diarrhea, but it is one of the most common and serious.
Why can dehydration be serious for infants and small children?
The rapid loss of fluids that accompanies vomiting and diarrhea can lead to dehydration, during which the body does not have the water and salts (or electrolytes) it needs. Babies under one year of age, and especially those who have a fever, become dehydrated most easily because of their smaller body weights. It is sometimes necessary for children to be rehydrated using intravenous fluids. In the most severe cases of dehydration, a child may even develop convulsions or go into shock, which in rare cases can be life-threatening.
What are the other symptoms of rotavirus?
Rotavirus often begins with a mild fever and is followed by vomiting and an upset stomach, as well as increased amounts of watery diarrhea many times a day. Anyone caring for small children should know the symptoms of rotavirus, including:
- Frequent, watery diarrhea (often foul-smelling, green or brown)
- Frequent vomiting
- Abdominal pain
The following are signs of dehydration:
- Lethargy (child won’t focus on you, is less responsive to touch or words)
- Less frequent urination
- No tears when crying
- Dry, cool skin
- Dry or sticky mouth
- Sunken eyes or sunken soft spot on top of the head
- Extreme thirst
How is rotavirus typically treated?
There is no antiviral medication available to treat rotavirus; it is also important to recognize that antibiotics are not useful in treating rotavirus because the disease is caused by a virus, not by bacteria. Thus, treatment centers on lessening the severity of a person’s symptoms. The most important symptom to treat is dehydration.
Patients suffering from rotavirus should drink plenty of clear liquids; apple juice and dairy products should be avoided, as they can make diarrhea worse. Oral rehydration solutions, like Pedialyte, can be useful in treating mild dehydration. More severe dehydration, particularly in children, may require hospitalization and intravenous fluids.
How can I prevent rotavirus infection?
Proper hygiene is key to preventing the spread of rotavirus. Make sure to wash your hands properly after using the toilet, changing a child’s diaper, or handling any potentially contaminated objects. Also, an oral rotavirus vaccine is available in the United States and has proven quite effective in reducing the prevalence of the disease.
The vaccine is given between the ages of 2 and 6 months; according to the CDC, nine out of ten children who receive the vaccine will be protected from severe rotavirus infection. The vaccine carries very few side effects.
What kinds of tests are used to test for rotavirus?
Stool samples will most commonly undergo testing to detect rotavirus antigens. One such antigen test is an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA), like the IVD Rotavirus Stool Antigen Detection Microwell ELISA. Another method is a polymerase chain reaction (PCR)test, which copies and amplifies small segments of rotavirus DNA, allowing doctors and laboratories to detect the presence of rotavirus in a stool sample.
How does rotavirus spread?
Rotavirus can be spread both before and after children show signs of being sick. Children can catch a rotavirus infection if they put their fingers in their mouths after touching something that has been contaminated by the stool of an infected person. Usually, this happens when children forget to wash their hands often enough, especially before eating and after using the toilet.
Is rotavirus contagious? How long is rotavirus contagious?
Rotavirus infection is highly contagious. Contamination of hands or surfaces with the stool of an infected person and then touching the mouth is the main method of spread. Rotavirus infection is contagious (can be spread to other people) from the time before diarrhea develops until up to 10 days after symptoms have disappeared.
How does rotavirus spread?
The primary mode of transmission of rotavirus is the passage of the virus in the stool to the mouth of another child, known as a fecal-oral route of transmission. Children can transmit the virus when they forget to wash their hands before eating or after using the toilet. Touching a surface contaminated with rotavirus and then touching the mouth area can result in infection.
There also have been cases of low levels of rotavirus in respiratory-tract secretions and other body fluids. Because the virus is stable (remains infective) in the environment, transmission can occur through the ingestion of contaminated water or food and contact with contaminated surfaces. Rotavirus can survive for days on hard and dry surfaces, and it can live for hours on human hands.
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