Symptoms and causes

Symptoms

A rotavirus infection usually starts within two days of exposure to the virus. Initial symptoms are a fever and vomiting, followed by three to seven days of watery diarrhea. The infection can cause abdominal pain as well.

In adults who are otherwise healthy, a rotavirus infection may cause only mild signs and symptoms or none at all.

When to see a doctor

Call your child's doctor if your child:

  • Has diarrhea for more than 24 hours
  • Has frequent episodes of vomiting
  • Has black or tarry stool or stool containing blood or pus
  • Has a temperature of 104 F (40 C) or higher
  • Seems lethargic, irritable or in pain
  • Has signs or symptoms of dehydration, including dry mouth, crying without tears, little or no urination, unusual sleepiness, or unresponsiveness

If you're an adult, call your doctor if you:

  • Can't keep liquids down for 24 hours
  • Have diarrhea for more than two days
  • Have blood in your vomit or bowel movements
  • Have a temperature higher than 103 F (39.4 C)
  • Have signs or symptoms of dehydration, including excessive thirst, dry mouth, little or no urination, severe weakness, dizziness on standing, or lightheadedness

Causes

Rotavirus is present in an infected person's stool several days before symptoms appear and for up to 10 days after symptoms subside. The virus spreads easily through hand-to-mouth contact throughout this time — even if the infected person doesn't have symptoms.

If you have rotavirus and you don't wash your hands after using the toilet — or your child has rotavirus and you don't wash your hands after changing your child's diaper or helping your child use the toilet — the virus can spread to anything you touch, including food, toys and utensils. If another person touches your unwashed hands or a contaminated object and then touches his or her mouth, an infection may follow. The virus can remain infectious on surfaces for weeks or longer if the area isn't disinfected.

Because there are many types of rotavirus, it's possible to be infected more than once, even if you've been vaccinated. However, repeat infections are typically less severe.

Risk factors

Rotavirus infections are common in children ages 3 to 35 months — particularly those who spend time in child care settings. Older adults and adults caring for young children have an increased risk of infection as well.

In the United States, the risk of rotavirus is highest in winter and spring.

Complications

Severe diarrhea can lead to dehydration, particularly in young children. Left untreated, dehydration can become a life-threatening condition regardless of its cause.

Feb. 18, 2016
References
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