Rotavirus is a virus that can trigger gastrointestinal symptoms, causing stomach discomfort and diarrhea. It can result in diarrhea by disrupting the typical functioning of the intestine. It is a common infection among infants and younger children.

Rotavirus is a highly contagious virus and a common cause of viral gastroenteritis. The National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID) notes that most children experience the infection by the age of 5 years.

Additionally, people who work with children, such as school workers, teachers, and day care workers, may need to consider if they have contracted the infection if they experience diarrhea symptoms.

The infection typically causes gastrointestinal symptoms, which may include vomiting, watery diarrhea, and abdominal pain. While many cases are mild, others can be severe, leading to serious complications. Research suggests that rotavirus causes more than 500,000 global deaths annually, primarily affecting children in low income countries.

In this article, we will explore how rotavirus causes diarrhea, other common symptoms, and how to prevent it.

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Research notes that the rotavirus likely causes gastrointestinal symptoms and affects bowel movements by altering the structure and function of intestinal cells.

After ingestion, the rotavirus travels to the small intestine and invades mature enterocytes. These are absorptive cells that line the intestine and allow for nutrient absorption. In the mature enterocytes, the rotavirus multiplies, affecting the functioning of the cell.

According to a 2021 study, the rotavirus can penetrate the small intestine, leading to cell death within the intestinal lining. This can trigger several gastrointestinal symptoms, including loose, watery, and more-frequent bowel movements.

As a result of the frequent watery stools, a person with a rotavirus infection may experience severe dehydration. The NFID note that infants younger than 1 year in age are more likely to experience dehydration due to their smaller body weight.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), severe watery diarrhea is one of the most common symptoms of the rotavirus. Sometimes, the stool characteristics of rotavirus diarrhea may be nonspecific, and other pathogens may cause similar illnesses. As a result, confirming a diagnosis of rotavirus diarrhea may require laboratory testing.

The CDC also notes that an individual with a rotavirus infection can shed large quantities of the virus in their stool 2 days before the onset of diarrhea and for several days after symptoms start. However, tests may detect the rotavirus in the stool of immunocompromised people for more than 30 days after infection.

Reports by the NFID indicate rotavirus diarrhea may look like loose green or brown stools, which are often foul-smelling.

Typically, people acquire the virus through the fecal-oral route. This refers to the spread of the virus through contact with a hand, material, food, or water carrying the virus.

In addition to watery diarrhea, other symptoms of rotavirus may include:

  • vomiting
  • fever
  • abdominal pain
  • dehydration

A 2022 study found that severe dehydration from rotavirus can be a life threatening complication for children. This may be due to their smaller body weight. Therefore, parents and caregivers should watch out for the following symptoms of dehydration:

  • lethargy
  • extreme thirst
  • dry mouth and throat
  • crying with few or no tears
  • reduced frequency of urination or fewer wet diapers in children

The CDC notes that symptoms usually start about 48 hours after exposure to rotavirus. Symptoms, including vomiting and watery diarrhea, may last 3–8 days.

Learn more about how long a person may experience rotavirus symptoms.

At present, healthcare professionals do not have a standard course of treatment for rotavirus. Instead, they will usually recommend managing symptoms such as diarrhea and vomiting.

As such, a doctor may recommend the following measures:

  • drinking plenty of fluids
  • avoiding sugary foods and drinks
  • eating small, nutritious portions of a balanced diet
  • administering an oral rehydration solution that a doctor recommends
  • getting adequate rest

At present, there are two vaccinations available in the United States to help infants avoid infection. A doctor may either provide doses of Rotarix to babies at 2 and 4 months of age or RotaTeq at 2, 4, and 6 months.

Other tips to help prevent contracting or spreading rotavirus can include:

  • washing hands frequently
  • helping children wash their hands often
  • limiting contact with people who are sick
  • sanitizing surfaces in the house, including toys, doorknobs, toilets, and changing tables
  • properly disposing of nappies
  • keeping children home until symptoms improve

A rotavirus infection typically causes gastrointestinal symptoms, which can affect bowel movements and result in loose, watery stools. These symptoms occur due to the rotavirus traveling and multiplying in the small intestine, which disrupts bowel function.

Currently, there is no cure for rotavirus, but treatments, such as oral rehydration solutions, aim to control symptoms and prevent severe dehydration. However, a person may require emergency care if they experience severe dehydration.

To help prevent rotavirus infection, healthcare experts recommend practicing proper hygiene, sanitizing surfaces, and receiving vaccinations.