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Rotavirus infection

9-minute read

Key facts

  • Rotavirus infection is a contagious disease that can cause severe diarrhoea and dehydration.
  • Other symptoms include fever and vomiting.
  • It is very common in children under 6 months old.
  • Rotavirus infection can be prevented by vaccination.
  • The spread of rotavirus can be prevented by practicing good hygiene.

What is rotavirus infection?

Rotavirus is a very contagious viral illness. It can cause severe and life-threatening gastroenteritis.

Rotavirus infection is very common children under 3 years old.

What are the symptoms of rotavirus infection?

Rotavirus symptoms normally start between 1 and 3 days after infection with the virus.

The illness usually begins suddenly with vomiting, followed by diarrhoea.

About 1 in 3 people with rotavirus also have a fever in the first few days of the illness.

Symptoms usually last from a few days to a week. Some babies, especially those aged under 3 months, may not show any symptoms.

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

What causes rotavirus infection?

Rotavirus infection is caused by the rotavirus. Rotavirus usually spreads by contact with:

  • an infected person
  • vomit or diarrhoea
  • contaminated objects, food or water
  • droplets made when an infected person coughs or sneezes

Rotavirus spreads very easily. It can be passed on before symptoms appear.

When should I see a doctor?

Most children recover quickly from rotavirus. However, younger children can quickly become dehydrated.

You should see your doctor if your child is not drinking enough, does not seem to be getting better, or has symptoms such as:

  • a high fever
  • continuous vomiting or green vomit
  • lots of diarrhoea or bloody stools (poo)
  • dark yellow or brown urine (wee)
  • dry lips or a dry mouth
  • dizziness

Signs of dehydration in young children can include:

  • less than 3 wet nappies a day
  • dry mouth or eyes

If you are worried about your child, see your doctor as soon as possible or take them to the nearest hospital emergency department.

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

How is rotavirus infection diagnosed?

Your doctor will first ask about your child’s symptoms. If they suspect rotavirus infection, they will test a sample of your child’s stool (poo) in a laboratory. This is the only way to diagnose rotavirus infection.

ASK YOUR DOCTOR — Preparing for an appointment? Use the Question Builder for general tips on what to ask your GP or specialist.

How is rotavirus infection treated?

Usually, rotavirus infection causes mild symptoms that do not need specific treatment.

If you or your child has rotavirus infection, drink plenty of fluids to replace the fluids lost to diarrhoea. This is important avoid dehydration.

Depending on your child’s age and normal diet, you can help them keep up their fluids with:

  • rehydration solutions
  • water
  • breastmilk
  • formula

If your child is fussy, you can give them diluted fruit juice. Do not give them high sugar drinks — as this can make dehydration worse.

Aim to give them small drinks frequently — about every 5 minutes. If your child continues to vomit, the y may need medicines to stop the vomiting and allow fluids to be absorbed. These medicines need to be prescribed by a doctor.

Breastfed babies may need to be fed more often to avoid dehydration.

Children under 2 years old sometimes need to go to hospital to treat dehydration.

Can rotavirus infection be prevented?

The best way to prevent rotavirus infection in children is to have them vaccinated.

Australia’s National Immunisation Program Schedule recommends rotavirus vaccination for babies under 6 months.

It’s important to have your baby immunised on time. If they don’t have the vaccine on time, they may not be able to be immunised.

Older children and adults should not get the rotavirus vaccine.

What are the recommendations for the rotavirus vaccine?

Vaccination is your child's best protection against rotavirus. See more details about rotavirus vaccination in the table below.

What age is it recommended? 2 and 4 months, or 2, 4 and 6 months, depending on the vaccine.
How many doses are required? 2 or 3, depending on the vaccine
How is it administered? Oral (you swallow them)
Is it free?

It is free for children under 6 months old

Common side effects

The vaccine is very safe. There are usually no side effects. Very rarely, babies may develop a bowel problem called intussusception between 1 and 7 days after getting a rotavirus vaccine.

See your doctor after your child has the rotavirus vaccine if they:

  • have abdominal (tummy) pain that does not go away
  • look pale

There are 2 different vaccines available against rotavirus. You can talk to your doctor about which one is best for your child.

You can also ask your doctor if your child is eligible for additional free vaccinations based on your situation.

How else can I stop the spread of rotavirus?

There are many ways to prevent the spread of rotavirus.

Practice good hygiene and wash your hands frequently, especially:

  • before handling food
  • after using the toilet
  • after changing a nappy

Never change a baby's nappy on surfaces where food is prepared or eaten.

Be sure to wash any objects that may have been exposed to rotavirus. Use hot water and soap and allow them to fully dry.

If you or your child has diarrhoea:

  • avoid entering a swimming pool
  • keep your child home from childcare

Rotavirus is a nationally notifiable disease. If your child is diagnosed with rotavirus, your doctor will tell your local public health unit. They will ask who your child has been in contact with, to help prevent further spread of the disease.

Complications of rotavirus infection

Severe dehydration from rotavirus infection can be life-threatening.

Resources and support

For more information on immunisation in Australia, you can check:

If you need advice on what to do next, call healthdirect on 1800 022 222 to speak with a registered nurse, 24 hours, 7 days a week (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria).

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: July 2023


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