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Rotavirus - symptoms and causes

Updated: Mar 27, 2023

Rotavirus is a highly contagious virus that causes diarrhoea. It occurs mainly in children aged between six months and two years. Before the development of a vaccine, most children under the age of five were infected with the virus at least once. Although rotavirus most commonly affects infants and young children, older children and adults can also become ill. Adults affected by rotavirus usually have milder symptoms.


Rotavirus is highly contagious and very durable. Transmission of the infection occurs indirectly - through the faecal-oral route, most often through contaminated surfaces or objects, or through direct contact with another child. Although rotavirus infections are unpleasant, they can usually be treated at home with extra fluids to prevent dehydration. Sometimes severe dehydration requires receiving fluids through the vein (intravenously) in hospital.


Good hygiene, such as regular hand washing, is important, but vaccination is the best protection against rotavirus.

Symptoms

Rotavirus infection usually begins within two days of exposure to the virus. Early symptoms are fever and vomiting, followed by three to seven days of watery diarrhoea. The infection can also cause abdominal pain and dehydration.


In healthy adults, rotavirus infection may be accompanied by only mild symptoms or none at all.


Symptoms of dehydration include:

  • decreased urination

  • dry mouth and throat

  • feeling dizzy when standing up

  • crying with few or no tears

  • unusual sleepiness or nervousness

When to see a doctor?

Call a doctor if your child:

  • has had diarrhoea for more than 24 hours

  • vomits often

  • has black or tarry stools or stools containing blood or pus

  • has a temperature of 38.9˚C or higher

  • seems tired, irritable, or sick

  • has signs or symptoms of dehydration, including dry mouth, crying without tears, little or no urination, unusual sleepiness or unresponsiveness.

If you are an adult, call your doctor if you:

  • cannot retain fluids for 24 hours

  • have diarrhoea for more than two days

  • have blood in your vomit or stools

  • have a temperature higher than 39.4˚C

  • have signs or symptoms of dehydration, including excessive thirst, dry mouth, little or no urination, severe weakness, light-headedness when standing up, or dizziness.

Rotavirus is often diagnosed following a symptoms and physical examination, as well as analysis of a stool sample to confirm the diagnosis. Rapid tests such as ROTADENO-Screen® are used to detect rotavirus and/or adenovirus in a stool sample.


Causes

Rotavirus spreads easily among infants and young children. They can spread rotavirus to family members and other people with whom they have close contact. Children are most likely to contract rotavirus during the winter and spring (January to June). Good hygiene habits such as hand washing and cleanliness are important but far from sufficient to control the spread of disease. Vaccination is the best protection against rotavirus.

You can become infected if you:

  • touch your mouth with faeces-contaminated hands

  • touch contaminated objects or surfaces and then touch your mouth with your hands

  • eat contaminated food

Rotavirus is present in the stool of an infected person two days before symptoms appear and up to 10 days after symptoms subside. The virus spreads easily through hand-to-mouth contact during this time even if the infected person has no symptoms.


If you have rotavirus and don't wash your hands after using the bathroom — or your child has rotavirus and you don't wash your hands after changing your child's diaper — the virus can spread to anything you touch, including food, toys and utensils. If another person touches your dirty hands or a contaminated object and then touches their mouth, infection can follow. The virus can remain infectious on surfaces that have not been disinfected for weeks or months.


It is possible to get rotavirus more than once, even if you have been vaccinated. However, recurrent infections are usually milder.

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