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Rotavirus: How to Treat It

A vaccine given to babies and handwashing are two of the best ways to prevent it from spreading.
A light blue toilet with a yellow and blue rotavirus above the bowl.
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Last updated October 13, 2022

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What causes rotavirus?

The rotavirus disease is the most common cause of diarrhea in the world. Infants and young children are at the highest risk of getting rotavirus—especially those who attend daycare or other childcare settings. Younger children are also likely to have the most severe symptoms.

Children and adults can get infected with the rotavirus more than once. Typically, symptoms are milder each time. The exception is elderly adults and adults who spend a lot of time with young children.

Rotavirus is sometimes called the stomach flu.

Round with spokes, the rotavirus is named after the Latin word for wheel (rota).

Most common symptoms

Pro Tip

Diarrhea is your body's way of 'shedding' the infection. You don't want to stop it, because you are stopping your body's way of getting rid of it. But you do want to avoid the number one complication, which is dehydration. —Dr. Chandra Manuelpillai

Most people experience diarrhea. It can be mild, slightly watery diarrhea that lasts for a few days. Or it can be intense, frequent, watery diarrhea.

The main symptoms of rotavirus are diarrhea, vomiting, fever, nausea, and abdominal pain.

Parents and caretakers should make sure children and the elderly don't become dehydrated by regularly giving them liquids. It can be life-threatening.

These symptoms are a sign that you should go to the emergency room. Or if you notice signs of dehydration from vomiting and diarrhea: Dry mouth, decreased wet diapers, crying without tears, sunken eyes.

  • A lasting high fever.
  • Diarrhea for more than 24 hours.
  • Frequent vomiting.
  • Extreme tiredness or low energy.
  • Not eating or drinking enough.
The rotavirus infects the small intestine, causing cramping, nausea, and vomiting along with other symptoms.

Rotavirus quiz

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Treatment for rotavirus

Rotavirus infections generally go away on their own. Staying hydrated is essential.

Antibiotics do not work against viruses. And don't try medications that stop diarrhea.

Treating rotavirus infection is mostly about addressing symptoms and letting the body rest.

  • Fluids. Drink water. Give frequent small amounts of fluid to attempt to match the fluid loss from diarrhea. Sometimes, a rehydration fluid, like Pedialyte, is necessary for severe diarrhea.
  • Very severe diarrhea, especially in young children, may need to be treated with IV fluids in a hospital.
  • Pain relief: Mild pain relievers such as acetaminophen can relieve symptoms like fever and abdominal pain.

Always talk to your doctor before giving a child medication, even if it's over the counter.

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Pro Tip

Water is best for young children—discuss use in infants with your pediatrician. There are many over-the-counter oral rehydration solutions available. But I, honestly, tell parents to give kids what they want. If all they will drink is Gatorade or ginger ale—even if not the ideal drink– it's better than nothing. —Dr. Manuelpillai

How do you get the rotavirus?

Rotavirus is a very contagious, infectious disease.

The rotavirus infects the lining of the intestines, causing diarrhea and vomiting. An infected person easily spreads it through their stool ("poop"). And contaminated hands that touch shared surfaces and objects (toys, utensils, cell phones, etc.).

Two vaccines protect against the rotavirus infection. They are the RotaTeq and Rotarix vaccines. The liquid vaccine is usually given a liquid to babies when they are ages 2 months to 4 months old.

The vaccines prevent more than 75% of cases of rotavirus infection and 85% to 98% of severe cases. Vaccinated children can still become infected, but it's usually less severe.

The other best way to prevent getting—and spreading—the infection is by washing hands thoroughly and often.

Rotavirus quiz

Take a quiz to find out if you have rotavirus.

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Is rotavirus a virus or bacteria?

Rotavirus is a virus, not a bacterial infection. You will not be prescribed antibiotics because they do not work against viruses.

Dr. Rx

You can die from dehydration. Mild dehydration includes increased thirst, dry mouth, dry skin, or dark-colored urine. Moderate dehydration includes decreased urine output, sweating or tears, as well as fatigue, headache, muscle cramps, palpitations, and dizziness. Severe dehydration can lead to confusion, unresponsiveness, and death. —Dr. Manuelpillai

How long does it take for rotavirus to go away?

Symptoms may last from 3 to 8 days. Technically, people are contagious up to 3 days after symptoms stop. You need to continue to wash hands correctly, disinfect shared areas and objects, etc.

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The stories shared below are not written by Buoy employees. Buoy does not endorse any of the information in these stories. Whenever you have questions or concerns about a medical condition, you should always contact your doctor or a healthcare provider.
Dr. Manuelpillai is a board-certified Emergency Medicine physician. She received her undergraduate degree in Health Science Studies from Quinnipiac University (2002). She then went on to graduated from Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Sciences/The Chicago Medical School (2007) where she served on the Executive Student Council, as well as was the alternate delegate to the AMA/ISMS-MSS G...
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