What Every Parent Needs to Know About COVID-19

With the novel coronavirus wreaking havoc across the globe, parents are understandably anxious. We talked to the experts to bring you this guide to living through the age of COVID-19 with little ones at home.
ByKorin Miller
February 19, 2021
serious mom holds toddler boy

COVID-19 has altered the day-to-day life of people across the country and around the world, and as a parent it’s a little scary. After all, we want to do everything we can to protect our kids and our families. Here’s what infectious disease experts want parents to know about the coronavirus in babies and children, plus what you can do to keep your kids safe.

What Is Coronavirus?

Human coronaviruses are actually fairly common, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). There are seven different types of coronaviruses known to scientists, and most of them cause mild illness like colds, says William Schaffner, MD, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tennessee. However, three types of coronavirus can cause more severe illness. Those include MERS-CoV, SARS-CoV, and the novel form of coronavirus that’s making today’s news, which causes the disease now known as COVID-19. This form of coronavirus was only recently found to infect people but has since been detected around the globe.

The coronavirus is highly contagious. “This virus is transmitted in a way that’s very similar to influenza or any of the seasonal common cold viruses,” says Juan Salazar, MD, a pediatric infectious disease specialist and physician in chief at Connecticut Children’s. “Close exposure to someone who is coughing or has a runny nose will pose a risk of transmission. Touching surfaces with your hands and then touching your face, eyes or mouth with your hands can also transmit the virus.”

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Risks of Coronavirus in Babies and Kids

A lot of people are wondering, can children get coronavirus? The answer is yes—everyone, regardless of age, is at risk of falling ill with COVID-19. But, in general, most babies and kids who have contracted the coronavirus have been okay. “Most children appear to only have very mild signs and symptoms when they get infected with the virus,” Salazar says. Some children can even be asymptomatic, meaning they show no symptoms at all when they become infected, says Richard Watkins, MD, an infectious disease physician in Akron, Ohio, and a professor of medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University.

Just as with adults, coronavirus in babies and children can potentially cause serious complications, like pneumonia and even death. But here’s the good news: For the most part, “infants, children and young adults seem to be strikingly spared,” Schaffner says.

Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children

While most children recover well from COVID-19, there is a potential complication of the virus called Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children (MIS-C). This is a condition where different body parts can become inflamed, including the heart, lungs, kidneys, brain, skin, eyes or gastrointestinal organs, according to the CDC.

There has only been a small, albeit growing, number of MIS-C cases across the country, and there’s still a lot that’s unknown about it. MIS-C hasn’t been definitively linked to COVID-19, but most experts feel that it’s most likely to occur after a COVID infection, says John R. Schreiber, MD, MPH, interim chief of pediatric infectious diseases at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center. While children suffering from MIS-C—usually above the age of 3—often test negative for COVID-19, “about 80 percent of the children who have MIS-C have antibodies for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19,” he says, which suggests they had been infected in the past.

Kids with MIS-C develop what Schreiber calls an “abnormal immune response” where a child’s immune system attacks their own organs. While MIS-C can be very serious, and has been fatal in some cases, with medical attention “most of the children who have developed it have done okay,” Schreiber says.

Coronavirus Symptoms in Children

There isn’t a lot of information right now about how the symptoms of coronavirus in babies and kids appear, Salazar says. Generally, while it’s possible for your child to have coronavirus without you even knowing it, "the symptoms are no different from adults,” Watkins says. Those symptoms, according to the CDC, include:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chills
  • Repeated shaking with chills
  • Muscle pain
  • Headache
  • Sore throat
  • New loss of taste or smell

Runny nose, vomiting and diarrhea have also been reported in children.

If your child is exposed to COVID-19, they might not necessarily develop symptoms right away. The coronavirus incubation period is between two and 14 days, Watkins says. If you do suspect that your child has been infected, give your pediatrician a call before seeking care—that way if your little one has in fact contracted COVID-19, you won’t risk infecting others. The doctor can talk you through next steps and ways to limit exposure.

Symptoms of MIS-C

In addition to being on the lookout for coronavirus symptoms in children, the CDC says to call your child’s doctor if they develop any of the following symptoms related to MIS-C:

  • Fever
  • Abdominal pain
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Neck pain
  • Rash
  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Feeling extra tired

The CDC also urges parents to seek immediate emergency care if your child develops any of these symptoms:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Pain or pressure in the chest that doesn’t go away
  • New confusion
  • Inability to wake or stay awake
  • Bluish lips or face
  • Severe abdominal pain

How to Treat Coronavirus in Babies and Kids

There is no specific treatment for coronavirus in young children (or people of any age, for that matter). “Experimental therapies are being investigated, but none are yet approved,” Salazar says. Instead, doctors are treating the symptoms. That includes having patients drink fluids, rest and take fever-reducing medications like acetaminophen (Tylenol), Watkins says. In more severe cases, a patient might require supplemental oxygen, he adds.

Based on preliminary data, the recovery time for a mild case of COVID-19 can be approximately two weeks, while severe cases can last three to six weeks or longer for those requiring intensive care, according to the World Health Organization.

If your child (or anyone in your family) is mildly ill with COVID-19, they can likely recover at home. The CDC recommends not letting them leave the house for any reason other than seeking medical care. As much as possible, keep them isolated in a specific room in the house (away from other siblings and pets) and, if possible, have them use a separate bathroom. Don’t let them share food, drinking cups, utensils or bedding with others in your house. When caring for a sick child, parents and caregivers should wear a face mask and practice good hand hygiene. (Note, though, that it’s not recommended for children under 2 to wear cloth face coverings.) Monitor your child’s symptoms, and let your pediatrician know if they worsen or if your child experiences any trouble breathing.

Should Kids Get COVID-19 Antibody Testing?

Antibody tests won’t tell you if you or your child are currently sick with COVID-19; rather, the test checks your blood for signs of past infection by looking for proteins that the body produces to fight off the disease. Typically, when your body creates antibodies, they provide protection against getting that disease again. However, with COVID-19, that’s not necessarily the case.

As of now, it’s not entirely clear when antibody testing should be used, and the tests themselves come with challenges, says Schreiber. “We only use it in very targeted circumstances, like when a child comes in with symptoms resembling MIS-C,” he says. It hasn’t been thought to be helpful for the general population so far because experts aren’t sure whether a positive result means you’re actually immune to the virus or for how long. According to the CDC, even if you test positive for COVID-19 antibodies, you should still take preventative measures to protect yourself and others, since the results don’t confirm whether you’re able to transmit the virus.

Coronavirus Precautions

We get it–trying to protect your kids against COVID-19 can be nerve-wracking and confusing. But there are certain things you can do to keep the coronavirus at bay. The CDC currently recommends doing the following:

  • Stay at home as much as possible
  • Social distance when out in public, keeping at least 6 feet of space between you and others
  • Children 2 and older should wear a cloth mask that covers their nose and mouth when in a community setting
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects (including toys) and surfaces
  • Wash your and your kids’ hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds (which is how long it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice), especially after going to the bathroom, before eating and after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing
  • If soap and water aren’t available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol (but keep in mind that alcohol-based hand sanitizer isn’t recommended for children under the age of 2, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics

Tips for Getting Kids to Wear a Mask

Masks aren’t recommended for children under the age of 2, but for older kids, they should be wearing a cloth face covering when out in public. The risk of coronavirus in young children is real, and masks are a key form of protection. Of course, getting toddlers to wear a mask outside is easier said than done. Schreiber recommends turning mask-wearing into a game. “Have them pretend to be a mask-wearing superhero,” he suggests. You can also reframe thinking about masks by trying to have your child view it as a reward. “It’s not going to be reliable 100 percent of the time,” Schreiber says. “Some kids are just not going to do it and there’s nothing you can do about it.” But modeling how to wear a mask properly for your child will go a long way—toddlers love mimicking the adults around them.

If you have any questions about coronavirus in babies and children, talk to your child’s pediatrician. They should be able to offer up personalized advice for you and your family.

About the experts:

William Schaffner, MD, is an infectious disease specialist and professor of preventive medicine at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tennessee. He was a Fulbright scholar and graduated from Cornell University Medical College in 1962. Schaffner is past president of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases and has served on the Executive Board for the Infectious Diseases Society of America.

Juan Salazar, MD, MPH, FAAP, is a pediatric infectious disease specialist and physician in chief at Connecticut Children’s. He also serves as the chair of the department of pediatrics at the UConn School of Medicine. Salazar earned his medical degree from Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Bogotá, Colombia, in 1986.

Richard Watkins, MD, is an infectious disease physician in Akron, Ohio, and a professor of medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University. He received his medical degree from American University of the Caribbean School of Medicine.

John R. Schreiber, MD, MPH, is the interim chief of pediatric infectious diseases at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center. He also serves as a professor of pediatrics at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine. He earned his medical degree from Tulane University School of Medicine in 1980 and is double board certified in pediatrics and pediatric infectious diseases.

Please note: The Bump and the materials and information it contains are not intended to, and do not constitute, medical or other health advice or diagnosis and should not be used as such. You should always consult with a qualified physician or health professional about your specific circumstances.

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