Understanding Rotavirus in Adults

Show Article Table of Contents

Man with stomach ache

Paul Bradbury/Getty Images

Rotavirus, a highly contagious virus, is the most common cause of infectious gastroenteritis (stomach flu) among infants and children. Adults can also be infected with rotavirus, although they usually have milder symptoms. Even if they do not become sick, adults who are exposed to rotavirus can spread it to others.

Cause

Anyone can catch rotavirus, at any age. You can become infected with the virus by exposure to food or objects that are contaminated with it. It is spread by the oral-fecal route, which means that a person who carries the virus can spread it through poor hygiene and by touching objects or preparing food.

Symptoms

Adults exposed to the illness may not develop any symptoms at all. When they do, they usually last for several days but may persist for over a week. Symptoms of rotavirus infection are the same for adults and for children, but adults tend to have milder versions. Symptoms include:

  • Stomach pain, cramping, and discomfort
  • Low-grade fever, and, rarely, a high fever of 103 degrees or above
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite

Typically, the infection lasts for only a few days. But if it becomes prolonged, complications can occur, including:

  • Dehydration, potentially requiring treatment with IV fluids
  • Weight loss
  • Lethargy
  • Low blood pressure
  • Rapid pulse
  • Dizziness
  • Low amounts of urine

Why Adult Rotavirus Infection Is Mild

Most children are exposed to the virus and develop the stomach flu as a result of the infection before the age of five. The illness induces long-lasting immunity in healthy children, and that is one of the reasons why adults typically do not become very sick when exposed to the virus. Adults also weigh more than very young children, so the impact of the infection—loss of fluids, for example—is not as substantial to a healthy adult's overall health as it is for a very young child.

When Rotavirus Is More Serious

Elderly adults and those with a compromised immune system due to illness or chemotherapy are more susceptible to becoming very ill as a result of rotavirus exposure. You may also encounter different strains of rotavirus that you are not immune to when you travel, which can cause you to become very sick.

Self-Care

If you have rotavirus, you can generally manage your illness at home with a few simple strategies.

  • Hydration: The most important thing you can do is to focus on keeping yourself hydrated. It is essential that you drink water. If you prefer the taste, you can consider oral rehydration fluids or electrolyte-containing sports drinks, especially if you experience vomiting or diarrhea.
  • Nutrition: If you feel that your stomach can manage it, try to eat something. Start out with crackers or toast, since these are generally the best-tolerated foods. Avoid food that upsets your stomach, such as fatty, deep-fried, or spicy options.
  • Rest: While you are sick, try to get some rest to prevent yourself from feeling run down. If you work, it is wise to call in sick so that you can give yourself a chance to recover.
  • Medication: Over-the-counter diarrhea medications may prevent stomach discomfort and reduce your diarrhea, but often have little effect.

When to Call Your Doctor

Most people can manage rotavirus on their own, but in some cases, professional medical care is necessary. Call your doctor if any of the following apply:

  • You develop a fever over 100 degrees
  • Your fever lasts for longer than three or four days
  • You feel like you cannot keep down any water or food
  • You notice blood in your stool or dark-colored stools

Serious symptoms that require urgent medical care include:

  • Vomiting blood
  • Lethargy (extreme tiredness)
  • Confusion
  • Very little or no urine
  • A weak or rapid heartbeat
  • Very dry mouth
  • Coolness in your arms and legs
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Difficulty walking or standing

Prevention

While rotavirus is prevalent in the environment, there are a few strategies to prevent getting and spreading it:

  • Hand washing: Diligent hand washing is the best way to prevent spread. The chances of contamination are everywhere, and rotavirus can survive on your hands for hours and on hard, dry surfaces for days. It is resistant to many cleaning products, including anti-bacterial cleansers. Because of this, it is best for infected children and adults to stay away from child care, schools, work, and other places where they may spread the virus to others in the environment. It's also wise to regularly wash your hands to avoid the rotavirus in the first place.
  • Special precautions: Because rotavirus is transmitted through stool, you should pay special attention to hand washing when you could be exposed by changing diapers or cleaning toilets (wear gloves when doing this).
  • Infants: Rotavirus vaccine is recommended for most infants and it is effective in reducing the risk of severe disease in children and preventing infection. Additionally, if you know that someone is sick, do not allow your young child to be exposed.
  • Immunocompromised adults: If you take care of a relative or friend who is immunocompromised, be sure to take precautions and to prevent your loved one from contact with people who have even mild infections.

A Word From Verywell

While rotavirus is considered a childhood disease, adults can get it—and more than once, as there are several strains and you would not necessarily develop natural immunity to one because you had another.

There is no vaccine for adults, but for healthy individuals who do get rotavirus have a very low risk of severe illness.

The more concerning issue is that a healthy adult can spread the infection to a person who is not as resilient. If possible, stay away from other people until you are better, especially those who are immunocompromised or with whom you share close quarters (if possible)—even if you still have symptoms, but are feeling significantly better. Be mindful of shared objects and wash your hands before using them.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources