What is rotavirus?
Rotavirus is a very contagious viral illness that can cause severe and life-threatening gastroenteritis. It mainly affects children between 6 months and 2 years old.
The illness mainly affects children under 3. Because it is so contagious, outbreaks of rotavirus can occur among children in childcare. Children are routinely vaccinated against rotavirus.
What are the symptoms of rotavirus?
Symptoms normally start between 1 and 3 days after infection with the virus. The illness usually begins suddenly with vomiting, followed by watery 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. People with rotavirus stay infectious for about 2 weeks.
Some babies, especially those aged under 3 months, may not show any symptoms.
CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the diarrhoea and vomiting Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.
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 less than 6 months old
- has other health problems
- is not taking enough fluids
- keeps vomiting or the vomit is green
- is very tired or drowsy
- has blood or mucus in their poo
- has abdominal (tummy) pain that does not go away
- has a high fever
- has other symptoms such as pain when going to the toilet or a headache
- does not seem to be getting better
If you are worried — see your doctor.
What causes rotavirus?
Rotavirus is usually spread by contact with an infected person through:
- person-to-person contact, particularly with someone who has not washed their hands
- coming into contact with vomit or diarrhoea
- being exposed to contaminated objects, food or water
It can also be spread by coughing and sneezing.
Rotavirus spreads very easily because it can be passed on before symptoms appear and you begin to feel ill.
How is rotavirus diagnosed?
Diagnosis is usually made based on symptoms and testing the child’s stool (poo) in a laboratory.
FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — the Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.
How is rotavirus treated?
Usually, the illness will take its course without requiring treatment, but in the meantime it is important to:
- get plenty of rest
- drink plenty of water to replace fluids lost to diarrhoea and avoid dehydration (over-the-counter rehydration drinks can help). You can read more about suitable fluids on the Sydney Children's Hospitals Network website
- avoid anti-diarrhoea medicines unless recommended by your doctor
Breastfed babies can continue feeding, but may need additional fluids.
Children under 2 may need to go to hospital to treat dehydration.
Can rotavirus be prevented?
The best way to prevent rotavirus in children is to have them vaccinated. The rotavirus vaccine is free under the National Immunisation Program Schedule to babies under 6 months. It is important to have your baby immunised in time, if you are late then they may not be able to be immunised. Older children and adults should not get the rotavirus vaccine.
There is a very small risk that babies may develop a bowel problem called intussusception after receiving the vaccine. For more information on the vaccine, visit the Department of Health website
Vaccination is your child's best protection against rotavirus. This table explains how the vaccine is given, who should get it, and whether it is on the National Immunisation Program Schedule. Some diseases can be prevented with different vaccines, so talk to your doctor about which one is appropriate for you.
|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?||
Rotarix is free for children aged 2 and 4 months.
Find out more on the Department of Health website and the National Immunisation Program Schedule, and ask your doctor if you are eligible for additional free vaccines based on your situation or location.
|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.|
There are many ways to prevent the spread of rotavirus.
- Wash your hands frequently, especially before handling food, after using the toilet or changing a nappy. Take particular care with handwashing after changing nappies in the 2 weeks after the rotavirus vaccine has been given. It is a live vaccine so it can be present in the babies' faeces (poo).
- Never change a baby's nappy on surfaces where food is prepared or eaten.
- Wash objects that may have been exposed to rotavirus with hot water and soap and allow to dry.
- If you or your child have had diarrhoea, avoid entering a swimming pool for 2 weeks after you or they have completely recovered.
- Keep children with rotavirus at home from childcare for at least 24 hours after diarrhoea stops
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Last reviewed: April 2021