Rotavirus is the most common cause of severe vomiting and diarrhoea in infants and young children. Vaccination is the best protection against rotavirus.
What is rotavirus?
Rotavirus is a very contagious virus that can cause severe diarrhoea and vomiting.
Rotavirus disease is serious because it can lead to dehydration, shock and sometimes death. Before the rotavirus vaccine was introduced in Australia:
- around 10,000 children under five years old went to hospital because of rotavirus every year
- around 115,000 children under five years old saw their doctor because of rotavirus every year
- at least one child died because of rotavirus every year.
Since the vaccine was introduced, the number of children who go to hospital because of rotavirus has dropped by more than 70 per cent.
Rotavirus disease is caused by several strains of the rotavirus virus.
What are the symptoms of rotavirus?
Rotavirus symptoms include:
- diarrhoea, which usually starts suddenly
- dry mouth, not weeing much, or few or no tears when crying. These are signs of dehydration, or not having enough water in your body
Symptoms can be mild and last only a couple of days, or they can be severe and life-threatening. You may need to go to hospital if you have a severe case of the disease.
Signs of a severe case of the disease that need medical attention include:
- sunken eyes
- a sunken soft spot (fontanelle) on a baby’s head
- not drinking but still having vomiting and diarrhoea
- a lot of diarrhoea, eight to ten watery poos a day, two or three large poos a day, or diarrhoea for more than 10 days
- vomiting for more than one day
- cold hands and feet
- dark yellow urine
- being slower to react than normal
- blood or mucus in the poo
- severe stomach pain.
Symptoms usually start about one to three days after catching rotavirus. Most people recover after three to seven days.
Who is at risk from rotavirus?
Rotavirus can affect people at any age, but babies and young children are most at risk of a serious case of the disease. Adults can also get rotavirus, especially if they have a weakened immune system.
How do you get rotavirus?
Rotavirus can spread when:
- you come in contact with faeces from an infected person, such as when changing a nappy or caring for a sick child
- you have close contact with an infected person
- you come in contact with clothing, bedding or other things that an infected person has used
- you eat food or drink water that contains rotavirus.
You can get rotavirus several times during your life. The first time you get it is usually the most severe.
Because rotavirus is very contagious, it can spread easily through families, childcare centres and schools.
How do you prevent rotavirus?
Vaccination is a safe and effective way to protect young children against rotavirus.
Rotavirus vaccines protect you from getting infected and prevent serious disease. The vaccines can only be given to young children.
For more information on rotavirus immunisation, see Rotavirus immunisation service.
If you or your child has rotavirus, you can help stop the disease spreading by:
- staying away from childcare, school, work or other places where you could spread the infection. Your doctor will tell you when you are no longer infectious.
- washing your hands often, especially before eating or preparing food
- washing and disinfecting anything that has been in contact with faeces, such as nappies or the nappy-changing table
- washing toys, bedding, clothes and other things that the infected person has touched.
How do you know if you have rotavirus?
If you think you or one of your family members has severe rotavirus, see your doctor.
Your doctor may treat you based on your symptoms and an examination. If your doctor thinks you have rotavirus, he or she can take a sample of faeces to confirm the diagnosis.
How do you get treated for rotavirus?
There is no specific treatment for rotavirus. People who have a mild case of the disease usually get better on their own after a few days if they drink plenty of fluids.
People who have serious disease need to be treated in hospital.
- The National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance has resources for consumers.
- See the Australian Immunisation Handbook for technical details.
If you need advice or more information about immunisation, go to our Immunisation contacts page.