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Rotavirus

Updated 07.06.2022
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Rotavirus is a very contagious virus that causes diarrhoea. It mostly affects the under-5s and it's usually mild enough to just be treated at home. Early symptoms include a temperature, vomiting and then 3 to 7 days of watery diarrhoea. They may also get abdominal pain and cramps. It takes about 2 days after being exposed to the virus for symptoms to start. Even after the other symptoms have resolved, loose stool can last for up to 10 days, although hopefully improving in that time.  It's so common that most children in the UK have met it by 5 years old. Older children and adults can also catch rotavirus, but in adults it's usually a milder illness. They should still be cautious about not infecting others, though.

How can I prevent rotavirus? 

One way to prevent your child catching rotavirus is to make sure that they wash their hands after going to the toilet and before eating. Another way is to ensure your child is vaccinated with the rotavirus vaccine.  It’s easily passed on within a household, so if one of your children has it, keep them to a separate bathroom where possible, wash everyone’s hands regularly, and avoid sharing cutlery or cups, clothes or towels.

How is rotavirus treated in children?

If your child does get rotavirus they have to stay at home while they have symptoms and for an extra 2 days after they have recovered, to ensure they are no longer contagious to others. Antibiotics will not work when your child has rotavirus, as they only work on a bacteria, and there aren’t antivirals available for this. You need to ensure that – even if they’re not eating much – they must stay hydrated. They will be losing fluids and salts from their fever and diarrhoea, so it’s a good idea to encourage as much drinking as possible, and add in products like oral rehydration sachets to restore their mineral balance. Avoid dairy products, spicy food, sugary foods or anything too heavy, as this can worsen the diarrhoea. Eat light foods such as bland soups and dry toast until symptoms have resolved. 

When should we see their doctor?

You should be concerned if your child has constant vomiting and can’t keep any fluids down. If they are having reduced feeding, a persistently raised temperature or they are drowsy and difficult to keep awake, you should seek urgent medical attention.  If their diarrhoea lasts longer than 48 hours you should speak with your doctor for further advice. 

What about the rotavirus vaccine? 

This is an oral vaccine that is part of the normal immunisation programme for children and is highly effective in reducing infection rates. It consists of 2 doses, at 8 weeks and 12 weeks, and it’s delivered by drops in their mouth. If the first dose has been missed it can be taken by 15 weeks and the next one 4 weeks later, and provides years-long protection while they build up their immunity.

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