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Rotavirus mainly affects children between 6 months and 2 years old.

Rotavirus mainly affects children between 6 months and 2 years old.
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Rotavirus

4-minute read

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. Children are routinely vaccinated against rotavirus.

What are the symptoms of rotavirus?

The illness usually begins suddenly with vomiting, followed by watery diarrhoea. About one in three 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.

What causes rotavirus?

Rotavirus causes severe viral gastroenteritis. It 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.

How is rotavirus treated?

Usually the illness will take its course without requiring treatment, but in the meantime it's 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)
  • avoid anti-diarrhoea medicines unless recommended by your doctor

Breastfed babies can continue feeding, but may need additional fluids. Children with vomiting or diarrhoea who are very unwell or under 6 months old should see a doctor. 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. It is given at 6 to 8 weeks and again at 4 months of age, but is not given to older babies and children. 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.

Rotavirus vaccine

Vaccination is your 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).
  • Wash objects that may have been exposed to rotavirus with hot water and soap and allow to dry.
  • If you've had diarrhoea, avoid entering a swimming pool for 2 weeks after symptoms disappear.
  • Keep children with rotavirus at home from childcare for at least 24 hours after diarrhoea stops.

Resources and support

  • If you’re concerned you or your child may have symptoms of rotavirus, see your doctor or use healthdirect’s Symptom Checker to find out what to do next.
  • For more information on immunisation in Australia, visit the National Immunisation Schedule web page.

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

Last reviewed: May 2020


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