Norovirus and rotavirus can both cause gastrointestinal symptoms, such as vomiting and diarrhea. However, they are different conditions that result from different viruses.

Both viruses also have similar methods of transmission and duration, making them difficult to tell apart. However, in generall, rotavirus mostly affects children, while norovirus can affect people of any age.

This article outlines the symptoms, causes, and treatment of norovirus and rotavirus. It also discusses prevention strategies and when to contact a doctor.

Norovirus and rotavirus share many similarities. They cause many of the same symptoms, affect people of any age, and have a similar duration of symptoms. Often, the only means of diagnosis is through a stool sample test.

The table below shows the characteristics of norovirus and rotavirus.

Norovirus Rotavirus
Who it affectscommon at any agemost common in infants and children
Duration1–3 days3–8 days
Most common symptomsvomiting
stomach pain
severe, watery diarrhea
abdominal pain
Other possible symptomsfever
body aches
loss of appetite
Severityless severe, comparativelycan be especially severe for infants and children

Both norovirus and rotavirus can spread from person to person and via contaminated surfaces and food.

Norovirus causes

Norovirus is highly contagious. Someone with this virus can spread billions of its particles, and only a few particles are necessary to make another person sick.

According to The Department of Health and Human Services, the most common causes of norovirus include:

  • shellfish
  • contaminated foods
  • any food that contains particles of vomit or feces from a person with the virus
  • ready-to-eat foods that a worker with the virus has handled

A person may also contract norovirus by:

  • consuming contaminated water
  • having direct contact with someone with the virus
  • touching a surface that the virus has contaminated and then putting their hand in their mouth

Rotavirus causes

The most common cause of rotavirus is the fecal-oral route, which means a person contracts the infection when fecal particles containing the virus get into their mouth.

Someone may get particles in their mouth if they:

  • eat contaminated food or drink contaminated water
  • touch a contaminated surface or object and then put their hands in their mouth
  • have fecal particles on their hands and put their unwashed hands in their mouth

People with the virus shed rotavirus particles in their stool, which is how the virus spreads. A person with rotavirus is most contagious during the first 3 days after recovery and can spread the virus before presenting symptoms. The virus spreads most easily among infants and young children.

Learn more about rotavirus transmission.

A doctor may diagnose a person according to their symptoms after asking questions and performing a physical examination.

If necessary, a doctor can ask for a stool sample test, which a laboratory can test to confirm either of the viruses.

There is no specific medication to treat either virus. A doctor may recommend medication to treat the symptoms, such as anti-diarrheals and antiemetics, to help stop diarrhea and vomiting, respectively.

The most important treatment for norovirus and rotavirus is drinking plenty of fluids to replace those a person has lost from vomiting and diarrhea. This will help avoid severe dehydration.

Someone with either virus should drink plenty of liquids and take oral rehydration solutions that are available over the counter.

If a person becomes severely dehydrated, they require immediate medical attention. A doctor may treat severe dehydration with IV fluids directly into their veins.

Symptoms of dehydration include:

  • decreased urination
  • a feeling of dizziness when standing up
  • no tears when crying
  • lack of sweat
  • dry throat and mouth
  • fatigue

Learn about the signs of dehydration in toddlers.

People can help prevent both viruses by:

  • practicing hand hygiene by thoroughly washing their hands with soap and water after going to the bathroom, changing diapers, giving a person medication, or preparing and handling food
  • preparing and handling food safely, washing fruits and vegetables, and cooking food, such as shellfish or meat, all the way through
  • regularly cleaning and disinfecting surfaces
  • avoiding preparing food or caring for others if a person has either virus

For rotavirus specifically, the most effective form of prevention is to receive a rotavirus vaccine.

There are two Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved rotavirus vaccines available in the United States, which infants can have when they are 6–24 weeks old.

A person should contact a doctor if they:

  • have signs of dehydration
  • develop a high fever
  • have blood in their stool or vomit
  • have severe stomach or abdominal pain
  • are still vomiting and having diarrhea after a few days

Below are answers to common questions about norovirus and rotavirus.

What are the incubation periods for norovirus and rotavirus?

An individual typically develops symptoms of norovirus and rotavirus within 12–48 hours of exposure to the virus.

What is the difference between norovirus and gastroenteritis?

Gastroenteritis is an intestinal infection due to bacteria or a virus. Bacterial gastroenteritis often occurs when a person consumes bacteria such as salmonella. In viral gastroenteritis, norovirus is often the cause of the infection.

Rotavirus is one of the leading causes of morbidity and mortality in children under 5 years. However, the rotavirus vaccine is an effective preventive measure.

Both viruses may be more severe in infants, children, and older adults. The symptoms of norovirus and rotavirus usually go away on their own within 1–3 days and 3–8 days, respectively.

The most serious risk of both viruses is the threat of severe dehydration, which can lead to serious health problems.

Norovirus and rotavirus share many similarities, such as common symptoms, which include diarrhea and vomiting.

Rotavirus tends to affect infants and children more often and more severely than adults. Rotavirus vaccinations are available for infants and are an important preventive measure.

Both viruses are highly contagious and spread through contaminated food and surfaces and from other people with the virus. A person may develop either virus through the fecal-oral route, where particles of infected feces reach their mouths.

People should drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration and practice appropriate hygiene measures to avoid spreading the virus to other people.