Rotavirus affects infants, toddlers, and children more often and severely than adults. It also causes vomiting and diarrhea.

Rotavirus is one of the main causes of gastroenteritis, which people often call stomach flu. It is most common during the winter and spring months.

This article examines the symptoms, causes, risk factors, and complications of rotavirus. It also discusses prevention and when to contact a doctor.

A female comforting a toddler with rotavirus.Share on Pinterest
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The most common symptoms of rotavirus in toddlers are watery diarrhea and vomiting. They may also experience appetite loss, abdominal pain, and dehydration.

Dehydration can lead to serious health problems, especially in young children. Symptoms of dehydration in toddlers include:

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

Rotavirus typically incubates for about 48 hours from the time of exposure to the virus and typically lasts 3–8 days.

Learn more about the signs of dehydration in toddlers.

Rotavirus spreads easily among infants, toddlers, and young children.

They may contract the infection if rotavirus particles get into their mouth. This may happen if they:

  • eat food containing rotavirus particles
  • put hands contaminated with feces into their mouth
  • touch a surface contaminated with rotavirus and put their hand into their mouth

A person with rotavirus sheds the virus in their stool, where it can spread into the environment and cause infections in other people. Someone with rotavirus is most likely to pass on the infection to others during the first 3 days after they recover from the virus.

Learn more about rotavirus transmission.

Children who are unvaccinated against rotavirus and between 3 months and 3 years old are most at risk of severe rotavirus.

Infants, toddlers, and young children in child care centers or facilities with a high volume of children, such as nursery schools, are also at greater risk.

In young children, rotavirus can lead to several complications, including:

Children who are immunocompromised due to an organ or bone marrow transplant or congenital immunodeficiency may be at higher risk of complications. In these children, rotavirus may cause abnormalities that can affect the functioning of the organs, especially the liver and kidneys.

Practicing appropriate hygiene, such as regular handwashing and cleaning and disinfecting surfaces, are important in preventing rotavirus transmission. However, the most effective method of prevention is vaccination.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 9 in 10 children who receive the rotavirus vaccine will gain protection from developing severe rotavirus. Additionally, 7 in 10 will have complete protection from the virus.

There are two rotavirus vaccines available in the United States. One is Rotarix, which doctors give to babies in two doses at 2 and 4 months. The other is RotaTeq, which doctors give in three doses to babies at 2, 4, and 6 months.

Children should receive all vaccine doses before they are 8 months old. Healthcare professionals administer these vaccines via drops into the child’s mouth.

A caregiver should contact a doctor if a toddler:

  • is urinating less than usual
  • cannot drink for several hours
  • has a high fever
  • has any signs of dehydration
  • is still having diarrhea after a few days
  • is still vomiting after 24 hours
  • has blood in their vomit or stool

Below are answers to common questions about rotavirus in toddlers.

How long can rotavirus last in toddlers?

Rotavirus typically lasts 3–8 days. However, if a toddler’s vomiting continues for more than 24 hours, a person should contact a doctor.

How do I know if my child has rotavirus?

A doctor can usually diagnose a child according to their symptoms. They may send a stool sample to the laboratory for confirmation if a child is very sick or has mucus or blood in their stool. A healthcare professional may also check a child’s urine to see if they are dehydrated.

Rotavirus is a common virus that most often and severely affects infants, toddlers, and young children. Children in child care facilities are at especially high risk of contracting the virus.

Practicing appropriate hygiene, such as washing hands and surfaces often, is helpful. However, vaccination is the most effective way to prevent a child from developing severe rotavirus. Most children who receive the vaccination do not contract the virus or do not develop it as severely.

A person should contact a doctor if a child has symptoms of dehydration, their health is not improving, or there is blood in their stool or vomit.