Kiwi Families has provided helpful articles on rotavirus and explains the signs and symptoms, Treatments, Risks & Complications in children, when hospital treatment is necessary for rotavirus and how to help your child at home.

What is rotavirus?

Rotavirus is a highly contagious group of viral infections which most commonly affect children between six months to two years old. Its main symptoms are watery diarrhoea and vomiting, which in a worst case scenario can lead to dehydration.

The name rotavirus comes from the distinctive wheel-like shape of the virus. The virus occurs throughout the world; it is more common during winter (though in warmer clients can occur all year round) and is the leading cause of severe diarrhoea in children. It is also known as infantile diarrhoea, rotavirus gastroenteritis and stomach flu. The younger the child the more severe the symptoms.

Because of its highly infectious nature, outbreaks of rotavirus can take place in childcare facilities, such as kindergartens or schools. It is spread through contact with infected faeces – for example, from hands that have not been properly washed, or where the virus exists on objects or utensils.

The virus will linger on surfaces (including toys) for long periods and is resistant to many disinfectants. The incubation period (the time from when the virus is first contracted until symptoms begin to appear) is 1 – 3 days.

In developing countries where treatment is inadequate, rotavirus kills hundreds of thousands of children a year.

The disease can also appear in adults (where it is usually mild) and the elderly where it is more serious.

Repeat infections can occur in children (though less severe over time) and eventually they build up immunity. Most children will have been exposed to the virus by the time they are 3.

What are the signs and symptoms of rotavirus?

The symptoms normally begin with sudden vomiting, followed by diarrhoea 4 – 8 days later.  Symptoms may include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Fever
  • Sore tummy – abdominal cramps
  • Watery diarrhoea – can last up to 8 days
  • Cough and runny nose

What is the treatment for rotavirus?

Your doctor may take a stool sample to confirm the problem is rotavirus. Because it is a virus, antibiotic treatment is not effective, so care involves ensuring your child stays well-hydrated and as comfortable as possible.

  • Keep your child home from school.
  • Keep them well hydrated with fluids – though avoid citrus and soft drinks.
  • Continue to breast feed babies but otherwise avoid milk products, cheese and butter.
  • Provide small frequent fluids and meals as tolerated.
  • If diarrhoea is severe and you fear your child is becoming dehydrated, seek urgent medical support – see below.

Risks & complications of rotavirus

The major risk of rotavirus is severe dehydration in your child – which may necessitate hospitalisation. This occurs only in a small percentage of those who contract the virus.

If your child has severe diarrhoea and/or vomiting seek medical treatment early. Signs that your child may become dehydrated include:

  • A dry mouth and tongue
  • The skin pinch test – pinch your child’s skin gently, it should bounce back into shape. If it remains ‘pinched’ then it is a sign that your child is dehydrated.
  • Sunken fontanelle (the soft spot on baby’s head)
  • Very thirsty
  • Sunken eyes
  • Lethargic or irritable
  • Not going to the toilet – no wet nappies
  • No tears when crying

What can I do for my child with rotavirus?

  • Act as a role model and teach good hygiene practices to your children.
  • A good hand wash lasts 20 seconds minimum, involves plenty of soap, a good rinse and a thorough dry. Encourage your children to sing a nursery rhyme while they rub, so they don’t run off after 3 seconds!
  • Be meticulous with hygiene.
  • Keep your young baby away from other children who have had vomiting or diarrhoea.
  • Wash hands constantly – especially before cooking and eating and after using the toilet or changing nappies.
  • Breast feeding will not prevent contamination with the virus, but it can lessen the symptoms.
  • Treat fever with paracetamol syrup (always be sure to read the label on the bottle for the correct dose for age), sips of water and tepid sponging.
  • See our article on Fever for further advice.
This is an essential family health reference, covering over 100 common, important, potentially serious and often worrying symptoms and emergencies, such as headaches, chest pain, dizziness, fever, bleeding, tiredness or stress. This classic bestseller has now been completely revised and updated to include the latest information on how to care for your sick child.

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This website has lots of information about the virus and what to do.

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Kimberley Paterson is a writer and public relations expert living in Whangaparaoa. She had an initial career as a registered nurse and has spent the last 20 years writing about health and well-being.

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