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Probiotics helping with Rotavirus

by Jane Cronin, Dec 04 2014

Probiotics are known to be great for digestive health and to help reduce antibiotic side effects. However it recently came to my attention that probiotics have another great use in the prevention and treatment of Rotavirus

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90% of New Zealand children will develop rotavirus gastroenteritis by the age of 3 years.

Probiotics help rotavirusMost people these days are aware of the benefits that probiotics have in the digestive system, keeping the balance of good bacteria in the gut.  They are also known for being beneficial when taking antibiotics to stop the side effect of loose bowels and to repopulate the gut, as antibiotics kills good and bad bacteria. However it recently came to my attention that probiotics have another great use in the prevention and treatment of Rotavirus. 

What is Rotavirus?

This is an infection that is particularly severe in babies and small children and claims over 600,000 lives worldwide annually.  Mostly this is in developing countries; however it can still pose a serious threat here too.  In New Zealand, rotavirus is responsible for 1500 hospital admissions of children under five years of age each year.   The symptoms are vomiting, severe watery diarrhoea, stomach cramps and mild fever, which don’t seem to be too insidious.  However these symptoms mean that children are not able to retain fluids, which can lead to severe dehydration.  Water loss through the bowel or mouth in a person with diarrhoea or vomiting can be up to four times greater than usual.  Also important body salts, such as sodium and potassium, are lost. It is this dehydration and salt loss that leads to children and infants being hospitalised and in extremes can claim lives.  Also at risk are the elderly and those with lowered immunity. 

Unfortunately rotavirus is highly contagious, so spreads quickly.  It is transmitted by the faecal oral route, so contamination comes from hands or objects touched e.g. toys.  The virus can stay active on objects outside the body for quite a long time, hence being so contagious.  When ingested the Rotavirus infects the cells of the small intestines and causes inflammation of the stomach and intestines.  Symptoms can last from 3 – 8 days.

The Rotavirus bacteria are present in high numbers in the stools of the infected person and can be passed before any signs of disease have manifested or after they have gone away.  Furthermore asymptomatic adults can transmit the virus unwittingly to others. Therefore good hand washing and hygiene standards are key to preventing its spread.    

How can Rotavirus be treated with conventional medicine?

Normally treatment is using oral rehydration fluids that replace water, electrolytes (replacing the missing salts) and sometime glucose.  These may have to be spoon fed gradually to children when symptoms are severe.

There is also a rotavirus vaccine.  The Ministry of Health advises to talk to your doctor if you’d like the rotavirus vaccination for your baby – the first dose must be received by 15 weeks old.

There is also a guideline of helping to avoid dehydration provided by the Ministry of Health at

Natural Health Approach to Rotavirus using Probiotics

There is good scientific evidence to show that probiotics can have a protective effect against Rotavirus and if used at the time of infection could reduce the duration and severity of symptoms.  However, evidence seems to point to one strain of probiotic being the most effective, Lactobacillus GG (LGG) species.  There are many forms of lactobacillus bacteria, which are bacteria that mostly favour populating the small intestines.  The GG or LGG is one particular species that is most effective in this condition.  One study tried 6 different types of probiotic and found the Lactobacillus rhamnosus strain GG had the strongest influence in reducing the prevalence, duration and severity of diarrhoea. 1 Another study on treating children with Rotavirus using oral rehydration therapy and Lactobacillus GG in hospital on children between the ages of 1 – 3 years.  It was found that those treated with the Lactobacillus GG had a shorter duration of diarrhoea and a faster discharge from hospital.2

Research also showed the duration of diarrhoea in children taking Lactobacillus GG was reduced from 6 to 3 days.  However what was also interesting was that 6 days after the onset of diarrhoea, stools in only 4 out of 31 children that received Lactobacillus GG were positive for rotavirus compared with positive findings in 25 out of 30 control subjects.3

With regards to protection against other infectious causes of diarrhoea a double blind, human study used subjects travelling on holiday to southern Turkey.  Subjects received Lactobacillus rhamnosus or placebo in identical sachets. The total incidence of traveller’s diarrhoea in the placebo group was 46.5% and in the Lactobacillus rhamnosus group was 41% indicating an overall protection of 11.8%.

How do Probiotics work to help Rotavirus?

Studies indicate that the Lactobacillus GG bacteria have a positive effect of strengthening the walls of the small intestines and increase the production of protective antibodies. 4 In fact the Lactobacillus GG (lactobacillus rhamnosis) adheres strongly to the intestinal wall without damaging the intestinal mucosa. 5 Finally it was shown that probiotics stimulate immune response in the digestive system when local invaders are detected.6

Since the rotavirus needs to attach to the walls of the small intestines to replicate and cause inflammation protecting the cell walls with good bacteria would definitely seem beneficial.  By taking a probiotic such as Lactobacillus GG we can help prevent viruses adhering to the sides.  Also if we have created more protective antibodies then the rotavirus may be destroyed before it can do any harm.

So in conclusion we can say that Probiotics, especially certain species, can be beneficial to strengthen digestive immunity and may help to reduce the duration of symptoms like diarrhoea.

Signs of dehydration in children include:

  • Dry mouth and tongue
  • No tears when crying
  • No wet diapers for 3 hours or more
  • Sunken abdomen, eyes, or cheeks
  • High fever
  • Listlessness or irritability
  • Skin that does not flatten when pinched and released


  4. In-Tele-Health © 2013  (from Hyperhealth Pro CD-ROM)
  5. English, J. & Dean, W.  Lactobacillus GG:  new breakthrough probiotic clinically proven to support gastrointestinal health.  Vitamin Research News.  June 1998.

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Dietary supplements are not a replacement for a balanced diet. Always read the label. Use as directed. Do not exceed the recommended daily dose. If symptoms persist, see your health professional.

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