Rotavirus – what’s the big deal?

Spring is certainly in the air and while the typical winter dryness starts to disappear along with the onset of much anticipated rainfall, there are certainly some infectious viruses that parents need to parents need to be aware of in the coming weeks and months.

Rotavirus is one such infection and while the virus is often self-limiting with most children recovering without complication, babies and very young children are susceptible to the dehydration caused by often severe diarrhoea and/or vomiting.

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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. This infection causes stomach upset and diarrhea.

Babies and very young children who have rotavirus infections need to be watched closely, because they can become dehydrated very quickly. When your child becomes dehydrated, severe health problems can arise.

Rotavirus infections spread easily with outbreaks usually occuring in the winter and early spring. Infections often spread in settings where many children are together, such as day care centers and the virus spreads through contact with the stool from an infected child. Even when people try very hard to keep places clean, the virus can spread easily; 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 only be a few steps to the sink, but the germs may get on surfaces that the caregiver or child touches along the way such as 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 3 days for a child who is exposed to the virus to start having symptoms. Like most viral infections, this incubation period is also the reason the virus is able to spread, as precautions may not be taken to prevent spread when signs of illness are not apparent.

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 child and to watch him or her closely for signs of dehydration.

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 September through to February), 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 washcloths 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.

Your doctor may recommend a rehydration drink such. 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.

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.

Your doctor may suggest probiotics for your child. They are bacteria that help keep the natural balance of organisms (microflora) in the intestines. A baby or young child needs to be treated in a hospital if dehydration becomes severe. Visit your doctor immediately if your baby has signs of severe dehydration, which include:

  • Being very sleepy and hard to wake up.
  • A very dry mouth and very dry eyes.
  • Being limp and floppy like a rag doll.
  • No wet diapers (a dry diaper) for 12 or more hours.
Can you prevent your 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. Depending on which brand of vaccine is used, infants need 2 or 3 doses starting at 2 months of age.

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

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