Rotavirus (sometimes called infantile diarrhea, winter diarrhea, or the stomach flu) is a common viral infection that primarily affects children. According to the CDC, rotavirus causes approximately 55,000 children to be hospitalized in the United States each year and the deaths of more than 600,000 children worldwide. Symptoms, which typically appear within 48 hours of contracting the infection, last for 3-8 days and are primarily gastrointestinal. They include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal cramping and bloating. Repeat infections are uncommon but possible.
Rotavirus spreads primarily by fecal to oral transmission, though it may be possible to transmit through some bodily secretions. Common means of contracting the infection include:
- Person to person contact with an infected individual
- Placing fingers in or near the mouth after touching a surface that has been contaminated
- Consuming foods prepared by infected persons, particularly if they do not wash their hands after using the bathroom
Outbreaks typically occur between November and April (hence the name winter diarrhea) and predominantly affect children under the age of two (hence the name infantile diarrhea). Infected adults may experience mild symptoms.
The most common means of diagnosing an infection is a stool sample. There is no direct method of treatment because no antiviral medication exists. Antibiotics do not work because rotavirus is a viral infection and they can only aid in fighting bacterial infections. The virus is self-limiting and infection rarely last longer than a week. Steps can be taken to combat the effects of dehydration, which often occurs during infections due to vomiting and diarrhea. The best means of doing this is to drink a lot of water or juice. Contrary to common opinion, drinking sports drinks is not better; they do not replace nutrients lost while battling the infection. Dehydration is the most serious complication that arises from rotavirus infections and can result in hospitalization.
The best method of prevention is vaccination. In 2006 the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) approved a vaccine for children. Available vaccines include Rotarix by GlaxoSmithKline and RotaTeq by Merck. It should be noted that Rotashield by Wyeth-Ayerst, was taken off the market in the late 1990s because of rare adverse side effects. Other means of shielding oneself from infection are good hygiene and basic sanitary measures. Some common sense steps include the thorough washing of hands after any fecal contact (going to the bathroom, changing diapers), washing hands before preparing or eating food, washing fruits and vegetables before consuming, disinfecting areas that may have become contaminated, and the prompt washing of clothing and linens that may be contaminated.