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Several viruses are responsible for viral gastroenteritis, an intestinal infection that causes vomiting, diarrhea, and related symptoms in children. These viruses, which injure the cells that line the small intestine, tend to be quite contagious. Outbreaks can occur in child care centers or after the ingestion of contaminated food such as shellfish, salads, or ice. Often, the food is contaminated by infected food handlers.

Rotaviruses are the most common cause of severe diarrhea in children younger than 2 years. In fact, virtually all children are infected with this virus by 3 years of age. Infections occur most commonly from November through March. Rotavirus infection was once called the “winter vomiting disease.”

Signs and Symptoms

In most cases, viral GI illnesses are not serious, but children can feel quite sick. Youngsters with a rotavirus infection have:

  • watery diarrhea
  • vomiting
  • a fever
  • abdominal pain

These symptoms begin 1 to 2 days after exposure to the virus and usually last for 3 to 8 days. In severe cases, children may become dehydrated.

Prolonged or severe diarrhea, particularly when accompanied by vomiting, can lead to dehydration. Signs of dehydration include:

  • increased thirst
  • less urine
  • dry mouth
  • fewer tears
  • weight loss

As dehydration becomes more severe, your child will become cranky and irritable, his eyes will appear sunken, and he may have a faster heart and breathing rate. If dehydration continues, the kidneys will stop working and the heart will not have enough fluid to pump. The blood pressure will drop and your child will go into shock.

What You Can Do

These viral illnesses resolve on their own with time and without any specific treatment. Make your child as comfortable as possible and take steps to prevent dehydration. Encourage him to rest, drink extra fluids, and continue to eat his regular diet.

It is important that the fluids contain salt because salts are lost in the diarrhea. Rehydration fluids are sold over the counter, but you can also make these at home. Talk to your pediatrician to be sure you have the correct amount of salt and water.

In severe cases, intravenous fluids may be required. If your child is vomiting, continue to offer fluids but give small amounts and more frequent feedings. Be careful with apple juice because too much apple juice is a common cause of diarrhea, even in healthy children.

Because these are viral illnesses, the use of antibacterials is not appropriate and may, in fact, make the diarrhea worse. Older children may benefit from antidiarrheal medicines, but only under the advice of your pediatrician.

Last Updated
Immunizations &Infectious Diseases: An Informed Parent's Guide (Copyright © 2006 American Academy of Pediatrics)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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