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Rotavirus infection
Other Resources UpToDate PubMed

Rotavirus infection

Contributors: Neil Mendoza MD, Ricardo M. La Hoz MD
Other Resources UpToDate PubMed


Infection due to the rotaviruses is a common cause of diarrhea.

Rotaviruses are RNA viruses that infect epithelial cells in intestinal villi. Transmission is primarily through the fecal-oral route. The pathogenesis of diarrhea after infection is not known with certainty, but is thought to be a combination of malabsorption, the action of a viral enterotoxin, and increased fluid secretion into the intestine.

Infection due to the rotaviruses is the most common cause of severe diarrhea in infants and young children worldwide. Most children are infected within the first few years of life. Infection provides some protection against reinfection, but reinfection is still possible throughout life. Infection later in life is typically associated with less severe symptoms.

Patients present with symptoms of gastroenteritis including diarrhea and vomiting.
  • In children, vomiting typically occurs first, may be associated with fever, and lasts about 2 days. Watery diarrhea then develops and lasts for a few days. Severe dehydration may result, especially in infants younger than 2 years old.
  • In adults, the symptoms are similar, although usually less severe. Abdominal pain may be present. Fever is not common.
Virus may be detected in stool for up to 10 days after resolution of symptoms (viral RNA may be detected by polymerase chain reaction [PCR] for weeks after resolution of symptoms), and prolonged viral shedding may be seen in children, the immunocompromised, and elderly patients.

Immunocompromised children and adults can have particularly severe symptoms or develop chronic diarrhea due to rotavirus infection. One report of a cluster of 4 cases in solid organ transplant recipients noted that the diarrhea (up to 10 episodes per day) lasted between 4 and 12 days. One patient developed such severe diarrhea that he lost 3 kg within 24 hours, leading to hypotension. One patient developed colonic ulcers (which caused significant blood loss).

In the clinical setting, determining whether a case of gastroenteritis is due to a rotavirus or another infectious agent is usually not possible. Specific diagnosis is not usually necessary, as there is no specific antiviral therapy available, and treatment is supportive and focused on preventing dehydration.

Antigen testing or PCR testing of stool is available and used mostly for epidemiologic study, to reduce the unnecessary use of antibiotics, or to establish a diagnosis in immunocompromised patients. Two rotavirus vaccines are available in the United States and have been found to decrease severe, dehydrating rotavirus disease.


A08.0 – Rotavirus enteritis

18624000 – Disease due to Rotavirus

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Last Updated:01/10/2018
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Patient Information for Rotavirus infection
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Contributors: Medical staff writer


Rotavirus is an infection most commonly known for causing severe diarrhea in children. It is the leading cause of diarrhea for children worldwide. Patients often present with symptoms of gastroenteritis including vomiting and diarrhea.

Who’s At Risk

Rotavirus is common in developing countries and spreads easily by hand-to-mouth contact. Contact with feces is a high risk factor for spreading rotavirus. The virus can remain infectious on surfaces that have been infected for weeks after initial contact. Children ages 3-35 months along with their caregivers are at the highest risk of contracting rotavirus.

Signs & Symptoms

Rotavirus typically starts 2 days after initial exposure. The symptoms are:
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Fever
  • Abdominal pain

The infection usually lasts 3-7 days.

Self-Care Guidelines

Drink fluids with electrolytes such as Gatorade to replace lost fluid from diarrhea and vomiting. Antidiarrheal medications should not be used.

When to Seek Medical Care

Seek medical care if you develop diarrhea for longer than 24 hours, if you have a fever over 103°F (39.4°C), if you are unable to stay hydrated, or if there is blood or pus in your stool or vomit.


If you or your child is unable to keep fluids down and becomes dehydrated, your health care provider may give intravenous fluids in the hospital.

There is a vaccination available to prevent rotavirus.
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Rotavirus infection
A medical illustration showing key findings of Rotavirus infection (Adult)
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