MSD Manual

Please confirm that you are not located inside the Russian Federation

honeypot link

Rotavirus Infection


Brenda L. Tesini

, MD, University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry

Reviewed/Revised Jun 2023
Topic Resources
  • Rotavirus is a viral infection of the digestive tract that can cause severe dehydration.

  • Typical symptoms include fever, vomiting, and watery diarrhea.

  • The diagnosis is based on symptoms.

  • Most children get better by resting and drinking fluids, but a few are given fluids by vein (intravenously).

  • Routine vaccination can prevent rotavirus infection.

Rotavirus is the most common cause of severe, dehydrating diarrhea in young children aged 3 to 15 months. It is one of the viruses that causes gastroenteritis Gastroenteritis in Children Gastroenteritis is inflammation of the digestive tract that results in vomiting, diarrhea, or both and is sometimes accompanied by fever or abdominal cramps. Gastroenteritis is usually caused... read more (inflammation of the digestive tract that results in vomiting, diarrhea, or both).

In the United States before rotavirus vaccination became available, about 55,000 to 70,000 children under the age of 5 were hospitalized each year for diarrhea caused by rotavirus. Although hardly any children in the United States die of rotavirus, elsewhere in the world, the virus causes over 200,000 deaths a year, mainly in children under the age of 5. Most of these children live in low-resource countries.

The virus is spread from person to person, especially if people with diarrhea do not thoroughly wash their hands after a bowel movement. Infection also can occur if people touch their mouth after touching an object (such as a diaper or toy) contaminated by infected stool. All such transmission involving infected stool is called fecal-oral transmission. People can also become infected if they eat food or drink water that is contaminated with the virus. Adults can become infected after close contact with an infected infant, but serious illness is rare.

During the winter in temperate climates, rotavirus causes most cases of diarrhea that are serious enough to send infants and toddlers to the hospital. In the United States before rotavirus vaccination became available, a wave of rotavirus illness would begin in the Southwest in November and end in the Northeast in March. Now, the illness occurs less predictably and can occur year round.

Did You Know...

  • Outside the United States, rotavirus infections cause over 200,000 deaths a year, mainly in children under the age of 5 who live in low-resource countries.

Symptoms of Rotavirus Infection

Rotavirus symptoms begin with fever and vomiting, followed by watery diarrhea. The illness typically lasts 5 to 7 days.

If fluid losses are not replaced, dehydration Dehydration in Children Dehydration is loss of water from the body, usually caused by vomiting and/or diarrhea. Dehydration occurs when there is significant loss of body water and, to varying amounts, electrolytes... read more often develops. Dehydration makes the child weak and listless, with a dry mouth and rapid pulse. In young children, diarrhea is more likely to cause severe dehydration and even death.

Diagnosis of Rotavirus Infection

  • A doctor's evaluation

Doctors do not usually do tests to detect rotavirus unless they are trying to identify an outbreak.

When testing is necessary, samples of stool are sent to a laboratory for evaluation.

Treatment of Rotavirus Infection

  • Bed rest and fluids

Medications to control the diarrhea (called antidiarrheal drugs) should not be given to children under the age of 18.

Prevention of Rotavirus Infection

quiz link

Test your knowledge

Take a Quiz!