Coronavirus in Kids and Babies

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on December 31, 2022
8 min read

Children can get the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, but their symptoms tend to be milder than adults’ symptoms, and in many cases, they may have no symptoms at all. Their risk of getting COVID-19 is about the same as that of adults. The risk can be drastically reduced if your child receives the COVID-19 vaccine.

COVID-19 may cause more serious illness in children who have certain medical conditions and in babies younger than 12 months.

In some cases, children develop multisystem inflammatory syndrome (MIS-C), which is a serious condition that requires medical attention (more below).

Some very simple and effective ways to help prevent your child from catching or spreading COVID-19 are:

  • Have them wash their hands often.
  • Clean your home often.
  • Keep your child away from sick people.
  • Know the COVID-19 level in your community, a statistic that is constantly updated by the CDC.
  • Follow CDC recommendations as far as precautions such as masking.
  • Have them vaccinated

You’ll also want to reassure your child if they’re anxious about any changes in their routines, like staying home from school or not seeing friends face-to-face. Watch for unusual worry or sadness, trouble eating or sleeping, and attention problems.

Talk to them about what’s happening, and reassure them that most cases of COVID-19 are mild. Your children will pick up cues from you, so it’s important that you stay calm, too.

When children and teens get sick with COVID-19, their symptoms appear to be similar to adults. There have been fewer hospitalizations among people in the U.S. under the age of 19. Research shows that over 90% of children who get sick have very mild to moderate cold-like symptoms that include:

Some children and teens have been hospitalized with a condition called multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C) or pediatric multisystem inflammatory syndrome (PMIS). Doctors are still learning about it, but they think it’s linked to COVID-19. Symptoms include fever, belly pain, vomiting, diarrhea, rash, headache, and confusion. They’re similar to those of toxic shock syndrome or Kawasaki disease, which causes inflamed blood vessels in children.

Serious problems are rare. Get medical help right away if your child shows any of these symptoms:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Can't keep liquids down
  • Changes in skin color, including blue lips or face
  • Confusion or trouble waking up

Some children may be at higher risk for more severe disease if they have other medical conditions such as:

The CDC has recommended that everyone 6 months and older should get the COVID-19 vaccine to protect against the coronavirus. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are approved for ages 6-months and older. The CDC also recommends a booster with the bilvalent vaccine 2 months after their most recent vaccination to cover the more current variants of coronavirus.

But getting the vaccine does not ensure that your child will not get infected. It’s important to do everything you can to protect your child and the rest of your family from disease. Here are ways to cut their risk of illness:

Wear masks indoors in public. People can spread the coronavirus even when they don’t have symptoms or before symptoms start. To slow the spread, the CDC says everyone over the age of 2 should wear a mask indoors when they’re in a public place if they have not been fully vaccinated or if the level of COVID-19 spreading in your community is high. The CDC has a tool to help you track the COVID-19 community level where you live.

Fit is important, so buy masks that are sized for small faces. Try on masks at home so children have time to get used to them. Make sure your child doesn’t touch the mask while wearing it.

Wash hands often. All kids should wash their hands:

  • After they go to the bathroom
  • After they sneeze, cough, or blow their nose
  • Before they eat
  • As soon as they enter the house

Soap and water are best. Make sure they lather the backs of their hands, between their fingers, and under their nails for at least 20 seconds (the same amount of time it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” two times). If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.

Stay home, and no playdates in person.When levels of coronavirus are high in your area, it’s important to limit close contact with others to reduce the spread of the disease. Stay home as much as possible, and avoid public places like shopping malls and movie theaters. Don’t have playdates or sleepovers. Your child may not seem sick, but they may still have the virus and can pass it to others.

Keep your kids away from others who are ill. And if your child has cold-like symptoms, keep them home. Teach them to cough and sneeze into a tissue that they toss after each use, or into their arm or elbow instead of their hands.

Clean your home regularly. Disinfect high-touch surfaces like toilets, sinks, doorknobs, light switches, handles, smartphones, tablets, and TV remotes every day. You can use most regular household cleaners, or make your own by mixing a quarter cup of bleach with a gallon of water. If your child has a favorite stuffed animal or plush item, wash it frequently at the highest possible temperature.

Take care if you get sick. A new mom who tests positive for COVID-19 or thinks she could have it might choose to temporarily stay away from her baby in order to lower the chances of spreading the virus.

Talk about the pros and cons with your medical team. If you go this route and still want to breastfeed, you can pump breast milk and have a healthy caregiver feed your child. If you might be sick but don’t want to separate from your baby, take extra steps to avoid spreading the virus. Wash your hands often, and wear a face mask when you’re 6 feet away or closer, including when nursing.

The number of children with COVID-19 has dramatically spiked with the Omicron variant. To ensure their safety, it’s important to have your kids fully vaccinated against COVID-19. To keep your young ones safe:

  • Have your child wear a mask in crowded areas, even if they’re vaccinated.
  • If possible, allow children to social distance.
  • Try to avoid crowded indoor activities. Take your children to outdoor events.
  • Keep windows open, if the weather allows, to create more ventilation.
  • Be cautious around older people and those with underlying conditions.
  • If your child is too young to get the vaccine, ensure that all others in your household get vaccinated.

There’s one FDA-approved COVID-19 treatment for certain kids under 12 years old. It’s a shot called remdesivir (Veklury). It’s for children 28 days of age and older who weigh about 7 pounds at least, and are either:

  • In the hospital due to COVID-19
  • Not hospitalized but have mild to moderate COVID-19 and are at high risk for the disease becoming severe

Remdesivir can cause side effects. There’s a chance it could raise a child’s levels of liver enzymes, which may be a sign of liver injury. It could also trigger an allergic reaction, which may include signs like:

Get medical help right away if you think your child is having side effects. Dial 911 if they’re having trouble breathing.

Paxlovid is used to treat adults and children 12 and older (weighing at least 88 pounds) who have mild-to-moderate COVID-19 and high risk of the disease becoming severe. Paxlovid should be taken as soon as possible after you’re diagnosed and within 5 days of your symptoms starting.

Remdesivir and Paxlovid are not substitutes for the COVID-19 vaccine in children who are eligible. Your child should still get the COVID vaccine if they are 6-months or older.

If your child has symptoms that you think might be COVID-19, call a doctor. They can tell you what to do and whether the doctor needs to see your child in person. Don’t just show up at the doctor’s office -- call first.

In the event that your child has COVID-19, they’ll likely stay at home to recover. Your child should rest and drink plenty of fluids. Never use aspirin in children younger than 19. It increases their risk of a serious condition called Reye’s syndrome. You may want to try giving your child an over-the-counter pain reliever that’s a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID), such as ibuprofen or naproxen.  Acetaminophen may be a safer option. To make sure the rest of the family doesn’t get sick:

Separate them. Your child should stay away from the other people in your home -- ideally, in a specific room and bathroom. They shouldn’t snuggle or kiss family pets, either. If your child has COVID-19, they should wear a face mask when they’re around other people. If that makes it harder for them to breathe, or they get upset, you can instead wear one when you’re with them.

Don’t share personal items with them. This includes things like drinking glasses, towels, and bedding.

Clean and disinfect constantly. If your sick child is old enough to clean high-touch areas like phones, doorknobs, and toilets themselves, let them. Otherwise, do it yourself but wear a mask.

Track their symptoms. Call your doctor right away if your child has trouble breathing, has chest pressure or pain, or seems confused.

Keep them isolated even if they seem better. Your child can be around other people once they have had a full day with no fever -- without the use of fever-reducing medication -- their other symptoms have improved, and it’s been at least 5 days since they got sick. They need to keep wearing a mask when they’re around other people for another 5 days, for a total of 10 days. If they can’t wear a mask, they should remain isolated for a full 10 days.