By Drs. Sally Robinson and Keith Bly
Rotavirus is the most common cause of severe diarrhea in children in the United States, with more than 3 million cases each year and 55,000 hospitalizations of children under age 5 for dehydration resulting from the infection. Rotavirus infections occur most often during the winter months.
Almost all children contract the virus before age 5. Typically, the older the child the milder the infection, but even adults can contract the virus. A rotavirus infection is most dangerous for infants, because their smaller body weight makes them more susceptible to dehydration.
Signs of a rotavirus infection include fever, nausea and vomiting, followed by abdominal cramps and frequent, watery diarrhea. Symptoms can last from three to five days. The infection is highly contagious, and it is transferred through stool. A person is contagious before and after symptoms are present, and rotavirus can remain active for about four hours on human hands, 10 days on hard, dry surfaces, and weeks on wet areas.
Fever and vomiting usually end after two to three days, but the diarrhea can last up to nine days. Severe diarrhea can lead to dehydration. If a child becomes moderately or severely dehydrated, she may need to be treated professionally through intravenous fluids; older children with milder infections can be treated at home.
Your child’s doctor may want to take blood or stool samples to make sure the disease is a rotavirus infection and not a bacterial infection. Because antibiotics do not work against viral illnesses, your doctor will not prescribe an antibiotic.
There is no specific treatment for rotavirus, but to prevent dehydration your doctor may recommend an oral rehydration solution, especially if your child’s diarrhea lasts longer than a few days. Ask your doctor about what your child should eat or drink. Children with mild diarrhea who are not dehydrated should continue to eat normally, but should be given extra fluids to prevent dehydration. Keep in mind that sugary fruit juices and soft drinks can worsen diarrhea and should be avoided. Do not give your child over-the-counter medicines used to treat vomiting or diarrhea unless your doctor recommends them.
If your child has diarrhea it is important to watch for:
• Signs of dehydration. Symptoms include a decrease in urine, no tears when crying, high fever, dry mouth, weight loss, extreme thirst, listlessness and sunken eyes
• Blood in your child’s stool
• Fever over 102 degrees Fahrenheit
As with any illness, you can reduce your child’s risk of becoming infected by washing hands frequently, cleaning contaminated surfaces promptly and washing soiled clothing.
Dr. Sally Robinson is a pediatrician in the division of children’s special services at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. She teaches medical students about caring for children with chronic medical conditions. Dr. Keith Bly, an emergency physician, directs emergency care for children at UTMB.
Dr. Sally Robinson is a pediatrician in the division of children’s special services at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. She teaches medical students about caring for children with chronic medical conditions. Dr. Keith Bly is a hospitalist and assistant professor of pediatrics at UTMB.
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