Rotavirus is a common infection among children under 5 years old, causing sickness and diarrhea. The virus primarily spreads through hand-to-mouth contact with contaminated surfaces or food.

Rotavirus is the leading cause of severe gastroenteritis in children under the age of 5 years. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advise that the rotavirus vaccine protects most children in the United States from severe effects. However, vaccinated children may still get infected and become sick.

Person-to-person transmission can occur in closed environments such as homes, hospitals, and day care centers.

This article discusses how rotavirus spreads, its incubation period, and its symptoms. It looks at tips for prevention and when to contact a doctor.

Shadows of children on flat surfaceShare on Pinterest
AlexLinch/Getty Images

The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) states that rotavirus predominantly spreads through hand-to-mouth contact with feces containing the virus.

People may spread the virus if they do not wash their hands after defecating, cleaning a child who has defecated, or changing a child’s diaper. The virus can survive for hours on hands and hard surfaces and remain infectious in stool for up to a week.

People who have contracted rotavirus excrete significant quantities of viral particles before they show symptoms.

PAHO further advises that the infectious dose is between 10,000 and 10 million viral particles. Stool generally contains 100 billion particles per milliliter.

Can rotavirus be transmitted through the air?

Although the fecal-oral route is the leading cause of infection, the U.K.’s National Health Service (NHS) explains that people can also spread rotavirus through the air by coughing and sneezing.

According to a 2017 review, the transmission of rotavirus through airborne droplets may explain the rapid accumulation of anti-rotavirus antibodies in the first 3 years of a person’s life, regardless of hygiene and sanitary conditions, but scientists have yet to prove this.

Learn more about airborne diseases.

Can rotavirus spread from person to person?

PAHO advises that person-to-person transmission through the hands appears responsible for the virus spreading in closed environments. Such environments include homes, hospitals, and day care centers.

Children may transmit the virus by direct contact with toys, food, and one another. Children are most likely to get rotavirus from January to June, and they can spread the virus to family members.

The CDC explains that people become infected when they get rotavirus particles in their mouths. This can happen when people come into contact with feces containing the virus, which can occur in the following scenarios:

  • putting unwashed hands in the mouth
  • touching objects or surfaces that have fecal matter containing the virus on them, and then putting fingers in the mouth
  • eating food prepared by unwashed hands

“Incubation period” refers to the time between when a person has contact with the virus and when they first display symptoms.

The CDC advises that the incubation period for rotavirus is about 2 days. Other experts suggest that the incubation period is between 1 and 3 days.

People are most likely to transmit the virus to others when they have symptoms and during the first 3 days after recovery. However, someone can spread the virus in the days before they have symptoms.

Learn more about the incubation period of the rotavirus.

According to the CDC, symptoms usually start about 2 days after exposure to the rotavirus. Symptoms may include:

Rotavirus is most common among infants and children. Adults who contract rotavirus tend to have milder symptoms.

Learn more about how long rotavirus lasts.

According to the CDC, the rotavirus vaccine protects 9 out of 10 children against severe disease. Healthcare professionals give children rotavirus vaccines by drops in the mouth. A child may require two or three doses depending on which vaccine they receive.

However, even vaccinated children may get infected and sick from rotavirus because natural infection and vaccination do not provide complete protection from future infection. Children who have not had the vaccination may have more severe symptoms the first time they contract the virus.

The National Foundation for Infectious Diseases suggests that washing hands after using the toilet and before eating may help a person avoid spreading the virus.

In addition, people who care for children must wash their hands after changing diapers. However, rotavirus is resistant to most disinfectant cleaners, including antibacterial products, and may infect even the cleanest environments.

If someone gets rotavirus, it is essential to prevent dehydration. The CDC explains that drinking plenty of fluids is the best way to do this. People can also buy oral rehydration salts over the counter.

However, a person should consult a doctor before using oral rehydration salts. For children, doctors may recommend an electrolyte solution such as Pedialyte.

Learn more about what can be done to stop the spread of viruses.

Rotavirus may cause dehydration, which is a loss of fluids. This can be especially dangerous for infants and children. Symptoms of dehydration include:

A person should contact a doctor immediately if they or a child they care for has symptoms of dehydration. Severe dehydration may require a hospital visit so a healthcare professional can give intravenous fluids.

Rotavirus is a common childhood infection, and vaccination is the best way to prevent severe symptoms. However, vaccination or natural infection does not protect from future infections with the virus.

People must maintain good hygiene by washing their hands frequently, especially after changing diapers and before preparing or eating food.

Rotavirus can lead to dehydration, which can be particularly dangerous for infants and children. People can avoid dehydration by drinking plenty of fluids and using oral rehydration salts if recommended by a doctor. However, if they have symptoms of dehydration, they must contact a doctor immediately.