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Overview of Rotavirus: Symptoms, causes and treatments

Dr. Ajay KohliJun 23, 2024

With an estimated 1,51,714 deaths in 2019, Rotavirus is still (in 2022) one of the major culprits for diarrhoeal illnesses in children (under the age of five) worldwide. The virus has a broad clinical spectrum, ranging from loose stool to severe diarrhoea. Vaccination is the most effective strategy to prevent Rotavirus infection. Read ahead to know more.




What is Rotavirus?

Rotavirus is an infectious virus that, when ingested, causes watery diarrhoea and vomiting by affecting the lining of the stomach and intestine. The virus causes severe infectious diarrhoea in infants and children before their fifth birthday. Infections are common during cooler months. The Rotavirus vaccine can help prevent infection. But keep in mind that, despite your child being vaccinated, infection is likely, although the subsequent infections would be milder.

Signs and symptoms of Rotavirus 

Following an incubation period of 1 to 3 days, the disease can begin abruptly with the onset of the following.

  • Fever 

  • Vomiting 

  • Stomach pain 

  • Watery diarrhoea (may linger for 3 to 8 days after the above three symptoms stop)

  • Loss of appetite 

If the child has frequent diarrhoea, it is like a death sentence. It can make them severely dehydrated (loss of body fluid), leading to dangerous complications. Therefore, contact your doctor immediately if you notice any of these signs of dehydration.

  • No wet diapers or less frequent urination

  • Fuzziness

  • Dry pale skin

  • Crying with no or few tears

  • Dry mouth and throat 

  • Unusual sleeping behaviour

  • Sunken eyes

Also, watch the child for the following symptoms.

  • Black or tarry stool or stool containing blood or pus

  • Fever of 102 F (38.9 C) or higher

  • Diarrhoea for more than 24 hrs

Adults can also catch Rotavirus but generally have milder or no symptoms. 

What causes Rotavirus?

Rotavirus lives in an infected person's stool and is commonly transmitted from hand to mouth. People who are infected with Rotavirus tend to shed a lot of viruses in their stool before developing symptoms and after becoming sick with diarrhoea. Consequently, when such people do not wash their hands thoroughly after excretion, the virus spreads into the environment and infects other people.

Children get infected when they:

  • touch stool-contaminated food items with their fingers and put them in their mouth.

  • fail to wash their hands after using the toilet and again put the unwashed hand in their mouth. 

Treatment for Rotavirus

Generally, the condition improves on its own after a week without causing any long-term health effects. But due to the lack of a definitive cure for Rotavirus diarrhoea, prevention of related dehydration is the cornerstone of treatment, offset by drinking plenty of fluids. 

In children, the doctor may prescribe an over-the-counter oral rehydration solution and Zinc to replace the lost fluids. But for severe dehydration, the child may need hospital admission, where the body fluids are replaced with intravenous fluids given directly through the veins. 

For adults, the doctor may prescribe antiemetic drugs to help with symptoms. However, one must avoid sugary foods and drinks, as they are more likely to exacerbate diarrhoea.

Diagnosis of Rotavirus

Diarrhoea has different causes. And so your doctor can diagnose Rotavirus infection by hearing about the symptoms and doing a physical examination. Usually, in most cases, no extra tests are needed. But if the child has a high fever with blood in the stool and vomit, the doctor may order a stool sample to be tested for Rotavirus and other germs that cause diarrhoea.

Common laboratory tests that are used for detecting Rotavirus include:

  • ELISA (Enzyme immunoassay)

  • Latex agglutination assays 

  • Rapid strip-based tests 

  • Reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR).

How can I prevent Rotavirus? 

Handwashing, disinfecting surfaces, and improving the water and nutrition quality are the traditional prevention strategies employed for most diarrhoeal causes. They are, nonetheless, ineffective in reducing Rotavirus spread. So, the World Health Organization recommends vaccinating children against Rotavirus to prevent severe diarrhoea and hospitalisations. 

In India, Rotavirus vaccinations are provided as part of an immunisation programme under a three-dose regimen at 6 weeks, 10 weeks, and 14 weeks of age. These are:

  • Rotavac® (ORV116E)

  • Rotasiil® (RV5)  

Both vaccines are oral, which means they are administered by mouth rather than through an injection. While they are safe and effective in almost all infants, they are not recommended for children who have:

  • had a bowel blockage called intussusception

  • weakened immunity 

  • allergies related to any vaccine component 

Babies suffering from moderate to severe diarrhoea or in whom vomiting requires rehydration therapy should also wait to get vaccinated until they recover. 

Risk factors of Rotavirus

Rotavirus infection can affect people of any age. But children between the age of 3 months and 35 months who are not vaccinated and spend more time in daycare centres and playgroups are at the greatest risk for contracting the disease. This is because the virus can survive for a few hours on human hands and for days on hard and dry surfaces, contributing to its easy spread. In other words, every child who is in the vicinity of a rotavirus-infected child is at risk.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Here’s a list of common questions and answers related to Rotavirus.

What are possible complications from Rotavirus?


Severe dehydration due to frequent diarrhoea for a longer duration is a serious complication of Rotavirus infection. Especially babies younger than one year can get dehydrated quickly due to their low body mass. Dehydrated children often need IV fluids to rehydrate. If the fluids are not given, dehydration becomes severe, and the child may experience sudden, erratic body movements or go into shock.

How can I keep my child safe from Rotavirus infection?


Protecting a child from Rotavirus is impossible because good hand hygiene practices and keeping the surface clean aren't enough to stop the illness owing to the resistant nature of the virus. However, vaccination is a much more effective means to protect babies from subsequent disease, although they may still get it with mild or no symptoms.

How long is a person contagious after having Rotavirus?


People infected with Rotavirus are very contagious. They shed substantial amounts of the virus in their stool two days before the onset of diarrhoea and 3 to 4 days after the symptoms wane. Overall, a person can remain contagious for about 10 to 12 days after the symptom appears.

Can I breastfeed my child soon after the Rotavirus vaccination?


You certainly can. Studies indicate that breastfeeding does not influence the efficiency of the Rotavirus vaccine and that you can feed your child before or after the vaccination.

Is it safe to vaccinate an infant who has already been infected with Rotavirus?


Yes. Because babies who have had Rotavirus previously may not be immune to all of the Rotavirus strains present in the vaccine. Which is why you should still complete the vaccine course of the child, preferably by age 8 months.


Disclaimer: The content on this page is generic and shared only for informational and explanatory purposes. Please consult a doctor before making any health-related decisions.


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