A newborn baby asleep in the arms of a parent.

Rotavirus causes vomiting and diarrhoea usually in babies and young children. It can lead to severe dehydration which may result in death, if not treated. Immunisation is recommended at an early age to help protect against rotavirus.

Did you know?

  • Most children are exposed to rotavirus during their first few years of life.
  • Before routine immunisation was introduced in Australia, rotavirus caused about 10,000 hospitalisations in children under 5 each year.1
A mother holding her laughing baby aloft in the afternoon sun.

What is it?

Rotavirus is a virus that spreads very easily from person to person and is a common cause of severe diarrhoea and vomiting in babies and young children. Rotavirus disease is often more severe than other causes of diarrhoea because it is more likely to lead to dehydration (loss of body water), shock and sometimes death. Children can catch rotavirus several times in their lives. Generally, the first infection occurs between 3 and 36 months of age; and this first infection is usually the most severe.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms of rotavirus can start suddenly, one to three days after infection, and can range from mild (lasting only a couple of days) to severe (life-threatening). Vomiting is usually the first sign, followed by diarrhoea. Other symptoms may include fever and drowsiness.

A rotavirus infection is more likely to lead to dehydration and hospitalisation of babies and young children than other causes of diarrhoea. Some signs of dehydration which may need medical attention include dry mouth, not urinating much, few or no tears when crying and sunken eyes.

Symptoms generally disappear after 3 to 7 days.

This is not a full list of symptoms that can occur following rotavirus infection. Please speak to your doctor if you have any concerns about rotavirus.

How is it spread?

Rotavirus can spread easily among infants and young children especially those in crèche or kindergarten.  

The virus can be found in high concentrations in the faeces (stools) of an infected child and is spread via the faecal-oral route (swallowing of or contact with infected faecal particles). Examples of when this may occur include when you change a nappy or care for a sick child, have close contact with an infected person, come in contact with clothing, bedding or other things that an infected person has used or eat food or drink water that is contaminated.

Those who recover from rotavirus can remain infectious for up to two months.

Rigorous and careful handwashing and disinfecting of baby change tables and toys is very important to help reduce the risk of spreading the disease.

Please speak to your doctor if you are concerned about your baby’s risk of catching rotavirus.

Who is at risk?

Rotavirus can affect anyone, but babies and young children are most at risk of serious disease. Adults, especially those with a weakened immune system can also be infected with rotavirus.

Some groups of people are at increased risk of severe or life-threatening symptoms.

  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children
  • Those with a weakened immune system
  • Those who have had an organ transplant
  • Those with existing gastrointestinal problems.

Other people may also be at risk of rotavirus infection. Please speak to your doctor about your individual circumstances.

Who should be vaccinated?

  • The rotavirus vaccine is recommended and provided free for infants as part of the National Immunisation Program (NIP). This oral vaccine is taken by mouth, and usually given at 2 months and 4 months of age.

    Once your baby reaches a certain age, the rotavirus vaccine cannot be given, therefore adhering to the NIP schedule is important. Please speak to your doctor to learn more.

    Immunisation schedule

    •  Immunisation funded via the National Immunisation Program (NIP)
    Diseases Birth 2 months 4 months 6 months 12 months 18 months 4 years 10 to <15 years 15-19 years
    Chickenpox (varicella)+                  
    A second dose of varicella vaccine is recommended any time between 4 years of age and less than 14 years, at least 4 weeks after the first dose. Speak to your doctor to learn more.
    Diphtheria                  
     
    Hepatitis A+                  
    Two doses of Hepatitis A vaccine are recommended and NIP-funded for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children at 12 months and 18 months living in certain areas. A two-dose schedule (which is not funded) is also recommended for some medically at-risk children and adolescents. Speak to your doctor to learn more.
    Hepatitis B+                  
    An additional booster vaccine is recommended at 12 months of age for preterm infants who were born at less than 32 weeks gestation or whose birth weight was under 2000 grams. Speak to your doctor to learn more.
    Haemophilus influenzae
    type b (Hib)
                     
     
    Human Papillomavirus (HPV)                  
     
    Measles                  
     
    Meningococcal ACWY disease+                  
    The meningococcal ACWY vaccine is strongly recommended (but not funded) for children less than 2 years of age, adolescents (15 - 19 years), Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (2 months - 19 years), and those aged at or above 2 months with certain medical conditions. A free dose is given at 12 months of age. For anyone wishing to reduce their risk of meningococcal disease the vaccine is recommended if their doctor deems it appropriate. Speak to your doctor to learn more or see who is most at risk of meningococcal disease here.
    Meningococcal B disease+                  
    The meningococcal B vaccine is strongly recommended (but not funded) for children less than 2 years of age, adolescents (15 - 19 years), Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (2 months - 19 years), and those aged at or above 2 months with certain medical conditions. For anyone wishing to reduce their risk of meningococcal disease the vaccine is recommended if their doctor deems it appropriate. Speak to your doctor to learn more or see who is most at risk of meningococcal disease here.
    Mumps                  
     
    Pneumococcal disease+                  
    An additional dose of pneumococcal vaccine is recommended and NIP-funded at 6 months of age for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. Two additional doses (at 6 months and 4 years) are recommended and NIP-funded for medically-at risk children. Further doses may be recommended and funded during adolescence depending on risk – speak to your doctor to learn more.
    Polio                  
     
    Rotavirus                  
     
    Rubella                  
     
    Tetanus                  
     
    Whooping cough (pertussis)                  
     
    Annual flu+      
     

     

     

     

     

     
    The influenza vaccine is recommended annually for all people aged 6 months and over. Influenza vaccine is funded under the NIP for those at or above 6 months of age with certain medical conditions and for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 6 months to under 5 years and those aged at or above 15 years. Learn more about who should receive flu vaccination.
    • 34
    • 26
    • 27

Treatment

Vomiting and diarrhoea caused by rotavirus can lead to dehydration. The main treatment for rotavirus is aimed at preventing or minimising dehydration by drinking plenty of fluids and rest.

Mild dehydration can be relieved with rehydration drinks available from your pharmacy. Severe dehydration may require hospitalisation for treatment using intravenous fluids (directly into the vein).

If your baby develops severe diarrhoea and vomiting you should seek medical attention immediately.

Important information

For information about rotavirus immunisation contact your doctor.

Some side effects may be experienced following immunisation. Please discuss any side effects or concerns with your doctor.

References

  1. Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI). The Australian Immunisation Handbook 10th Edition (2018 update). Canberra: Australian Government Department of Health. https://immunisationhandbook.health.gov.au/vaccine-preventable-diseases/rotavirus (accessed September 2018).

AUS/VAC/0095/18 Date of Approval November 2018