Rotavirus Infection in Children

Woman helping boy wash hands.Rotavirus is a virus that infects the small intestines. Rotavirus infection often occurs in the winter and spring months (December through June). It is very common, and is the leading cause of diarrhea in children. It is also very contagious and is mostly spread by hands, toys, food, and water. Only a few tiny germs are needed to pass on the infection. It takes almost 48 hours for the symptoms to appear and the illness can last up to 8 days. Most rotavirus infections are not serious and last only a few days. But they put children at risk for dehydration, a loss of water from the body.

 Common symptoms of rotavirus infection

  • Fever

  • Watery diarrhea

  • Stomach pain or cramping

  • Nausea and vomiting


Most cases of rotavirus get better without treatment. (Antibiotics are not helpful against viral infections.) The goal of treatment is to make the child comfortable and to prevent dehydration. These tips can help:

  • Do not give your child over-the-counter medicines to stop the diarrhea. These can be dangerous.

  • Be sure your child gets plenty of rest.

  • Have an older child sip water or suck on ice chips, if possible.

  • If your older child seems dehydrated, give 1 to 2 teaspoons of an oral rehydration solution. Do this every 10 minutes until vomiting stops and your child is able to keep down larger amounts of liquid. You can buy an oral rehydration solution at the grocery store or pharmacy. Ask your child's healthcare provider which types of solutions are best for your child.

  • Avoid sports drinks. They don’t have the right mix of water, sugar, and mineral salts, and may make symptoms worse. Don’t give diluted juice.

  • Do not give your child food until he or she has not vomited for several hours. When your child is able to eat, return to his or her regular diet, as tolerated. Restricting food or limiting the diet may cause the diarrhea to last longer than expected.

  • If your baby is bottle fed, you can give an oral rehydration solution for 4 to 6 hours and then resume formula. You may need to feed your baby more often to ensure he or she gets enough fluids. You can also give an oral rehydration solution if your baby is urinating less often or the urine is dark in color.

  • If your baby is breastfeeding you may need to feed more often. You can also give an oral rehydration solution if your baby is urinating less often or the urine is dark in color. 

  • Do not give your child any medicines unless they have been recommended by your child's healthcare provider.

  • Some children may develop a short-term (temporary) intolerance to dairy products after a diarrheal illness. If dairy seems to make your child's symptoms worse, you may need to avoid them temporarily.

Preventing rotavirus infection

These steps may help lessen the chances that you or your child will get or pass on a rotavirus infection:

  • Make sure your child gets a rotavirus vaccine. Two rotavirus vaccines are currently licensed for use in infants in the U.S. Ask your child’s healthcare provider which vaccine is best for your child.

  • Wash your hands with warm water and soap often, especially after going to the bathroom, diapering your child, and before preparing, serving, or eating food.

  • Wash soiled clothing promptly.

  • Disinfect any areas that may have become contaminated with a chlorine bleach-based cleanser.

  • Use diapers with waterproof outer covers or use plastic pants.

  • Keep your sick child home from childcare. Discuss this with your child's healthcare provider.

  • Prevent contact between your child and those who are sick.

  • Keep food preparation areas clean.

  • Have your child wash his or her hands often, especially before eating.

When to call the healthcare provider

Call your child’s healthcare provider right away if your child has any of the following:

  • Your child has a fever (see fever and children section below)

  • Your child has had a seizure caused by the fever

  • Has been vomiting and having diarrhea for more than 6 hours.

  • Has bloody diarrhea

  • Is lethargic

  • Has severe stomach pain

  • Can’t keep even small amounts of liquid down

  • Shows signs of dehydration, such as very dark or very little urine, excessive thirst, dry mouth, or dizziness

Fever and children

Always use a digital thermometer to check your child’s temperature. Never use a mercury thermometer.

For infants and toddlers, be sure to use a rectal thermometer correctly. A rectal thermometer may accidentally poke a hole in (perforate) the rectum. It may also pass on germs from the stool. Always follow the product maker’s directions for proper use. If you don’t feel comfortable taking a rectal temperature, use another method. When you talk to your child’s healthcare provider, tell him or her which method you used to take your child’s temperature.

Here are guidelines for fever temperature. Ear temperatures aren’t accurate before 6 months of age. Don’t take an oral temperature until your child is at least 4 years old.

Infant under 3 months old:

  • Ask your child’s healthcare provider how you should take the temperature.

  • Rectal or forehead (temporal artery) temperature of 100.4°F (38°C) or higher, or as directed by the provider

  • Armpit temperature of 99°F (37.2°C) or higher, or as directed by the provider

Child age 3 to 36 months:

  • Rectal, forehead, or ear temperature of 102°F (38.9°C) or higher, or as directed by the provider

  • Armpit (axillary) temperature of 101°F (38.3°C) or higher, or as directed by the provider

Child of any age:

  • Repeated temperature of 104°F (40°C) or higher, or as directed by the provider

  • Fever that lasts more than 24 hours in a child under 2 years old. Or a fever that lasts for 3 days in a child 2 years or older.