Gastroenteritis Caused by Rotaviruses


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A micrograph of circles with dots all over them.
Rotaviruses in a fecal sample are visualized using electron microscopy. (credit: Dr. Graham Beards)

OpenStax Microbiology

Rotaviruses are double-stranded RNA viruses in the family Reoviridae. They are responsible for common diarrheal illness, although prevention through vaccination is becoming more common. The virus is primarily spread by the fecal-oral route.

These viruses are widespread in children, especially in day-care centers. The CDC estimates that 95% of children in the United States have had at least one rotavirus infection by the time they reach age five.15 Due to the memory of the body’s immune system, adults who come into contact with rotavirus will not contract the infection or, if they do, are asymptomatic. The elderly, however, are vulnerable to rotavirus infection due to weakening of the immune system with age, so infections can spread through nursing homes and similar facilities. In these cases, the infection may be transmitted from a family member who may have subclinical or clinical disease. The virus can also be transmitted from contaminated surfaces, on which it can survive for some time.

Infected individuals exhibit fever, vomiting, and diarrhea. The virus can survive in the stomach following a meal, but is normally found in the small intestines, particularly the epithelial cells on the villi. Infection can cause food intolerance, especially with respect to lactose. The illness generally appears after an incubation period of about two days and lasts for approximately one week (three to eight days). Without supportive treatment, the illness can cause severe fluid loss, dehydration, and even death. Even with milder illness, repeated infections can potentially lead to malnutrition, especially in developing countries, where rotavirus infection is common due to poor sanitation and lack of access to clean drinking water. Patients (especially children) who are malnourished after an episode of diarrhea are more susceptible to future diarrheal illness, increasing their risk of death from rotavirus infection.

The most common clinical tool for diagnosis is enzyme immunoassay, which detects the virus from fecal samples. Latex agglutination assays are also used. Additionally, the virus can be detected using electron microscopy and RT-PCR.

Treatment is supportive with oral rehydration therapy. Preventive vaccination is also available. In the United States, rotavirus vaccines are part of the standard vaccine schedule and administration follows the guidelines of the World Health Organization (WHO). The WHO recommends that all infants worldwide receive the rotavirus vaccine, the first dose between six and 15 weeks of age and the second before 32 weeks.


Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: