Rotavirus is a common cause of gastroenteritis and can result in symptoms such as vomiting and diarrhea. Typically, a person will experience rotavirus symptoms for about 3–8 days.

Rotavirus infection affects the gastrointestinal tract and is a common cause of viral gastroenteritis. Its primary symptoms include watery diarrhea and vomiting.

Currently, there is no standard treatment for the infection. Managing symptoms typically involves preventing dehydration, which can be a severe complication of rotavirus. The virus spreads through fecal contact with the mouth, also known as the fecal-oral route. Though anyone can get the virus, young children and infants are particularly prone to infection.

In this article, we will review how long rotavirus causes symptoms. It also explores treatments, prevention, and when to seek medical care for rotavirus.

A child sleeping on a caregiver.Share on Pinterest
Mayte Torres/Getty Images

Once a rotavirus infection develops, it can cause diarrhea, vomiting, and other symptoms for roughly 3–8 days. Rotavirus typically takes about 2 days to incubate and cause symptoms.

Both adults and children can have repeat infections. Previous infections and the vaccination do not always fully prevent a new case from developing.

Additionally, people with a rotavirus infection shed the virus. This refers to how an individual may spread the virus. A person is contagious and can spread the virus before symptoms occur, while they are symptomatic, and for the first 3 days following the end of symptoms.

However, a person with a compromised immune system can shed the virus for up to 30 days following infection.

A rotavirus infection causes vomiting and watery diarrhea. Symptoms often start within 2 days and can last between 3 and 8 days. It may also cause abdominal discomfort and fever in some individuals. Though it can affect anyone of any age, it tends to be most severe in younger children, with adults usually having only mild symptoms.

A possible complication of rotavirus is severe dehydration, which is a potential life threatening condition. If a child or adult becomes dehydrated, they may develop symptoms such as:

  • fussiness
  • dry mouth or throat
  • decreased urination
  • unusual sleepiness
  • dizziness when standing
  • crying with no or few tears

Rotavirus spreads through fecal matter. Usually, a person accidentally ingests the virus due to placing fingers, hands, or objects carrying the infection into their mouth. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) note that some of the common forms of transmission include:

  • eating contaminated food
  • placing unwashed fingers or hands carrying fecal matter into the mouth
  • touching a contaminated object and placing fingers or hands in the mouth

Rotavirus typically spreads easily in young children and infants. They tend to be less capable or unable to properly care for their hands. Caregivers should help them adequately clean their hands throughout the day, after diaper changes, or after using the bathroom.

Parents and caregivers can also acquire rotavirus. This can occur if they do not clean their hands carefully or disinfect surfaces.

Rotavirus is a viral infection, which means antibiotics are ineffective. At present, doctors do not have a standard course of treatment for the virus. They will often recommend treating symptoms, such as diarrhea or vomiting. They will also encourage drinking plenty of fluids to help keep the person hydrated.

If dehydration occurs, a doctor may recommend using rehydration fluids for mild cases. An adult or child with severe dehydration may need hospitalization to replace fluids. Young children, those with preexisting conditions, and older adults have the highest risk of severe dehydration.

To help prevent contracting or spreading rotavirus, a person should consider taking the following steps:

  • washing hands frequently
  • receiving vaccinations against the rotavirus
  • limiting contact with people who are sick
  • sanitizing surfaces in the house, including door knobs, toilets, and changing tables

At present, two vaccinations are available in the United States to help infants avoid infection. Doctors can provide doses of Rotarix to babies at 2 and 4 months of age. Alternatively, they can give doses of RotaTeq to babies at 2, 4, and 6 months.

In either case, about 9 out of 10 vaccinated children gain protection from severe illness. Additionally, about 7 out of 10 gain protection from rotavirus disease of any severity.

However, the vaccine may be unsuitable for all individuals. Research indicates that the following people should not receive the rotavirus vaccine:

  • those with a combined immunodeficiency condition
  • those with HIV, AIDS, or cancer
  • those who need to take medication that can weaken the immune system
  • those with intussusception, a common cause of blockage in the intestine in young children
  • those with a previous severe reaction to the rotavirus
  • those allergic to any ingredients in the vaccine

For most, a rotavirus infection will come and go with no need for medical intervention. A person can often treat it with over-the-counter medications and by taking steps to stay hydrated.

However, it may be advisable to contact a doctor if diarrhea lasts more than 24 hours in children and more than 48 hours in adults. Additionally, a person should watch for signs of dehydration, including dry mouth, irritability, and less or no urination.

A rotavirus infection typically causes symptoms for about 3–8 days. The incubation period for the virus is roughly 2 days after exposure. A person may spread the virus for several days following an active infection.

Rotavirus primarily causes watery diarrhea, vomiting, and other symptoms such as fever and abdominal pain. It can also lead to dehydration, particularly in young children and those with a compromised immune system.

Treatment usually focuses on controlling symptoms and preventing dehydration. It can include over-the-counter medications and maintaining hydration. In severe cases, a person may need emergency care to provide fluids.

Prevention is possible through practicing proper hygiene, keeping surfaces clean and sanitized, and receiving vaccinations.