What’s My Child’s Risk of Getting the Coronavirus?
Most of the people who’ve gotten COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus, are adults. Babies and children don’t seem to be at high risk. Infants may have a higher risk, but experts don’t know that for sure.
In very rare cases, children with the new coronavirus can get a serious illness, such as fluid collecting in their lungs or organ failure. But for most children, the risk appears to be more that they could accidentally spread the virus, not get sick from it.
There are simple ways to make sure they don’t spread it: washing their hands often, cleaning your home often, keeping them away from sick people, wearing masks when around others, and limiting or stopping in-person playdates.
You’ll also want to reassure your child if they’re anxious about the changes in their routines, such as 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 are mild. Your children will pick up cues from you, so it’s important that you stay calm, too.
Are COVID-19 Symptoms Different in Children and Adults?
When children and teens get sick with COVID-19, their symptoms appear to be milder than in adults. There have been very few 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:
- Runny nose
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 the new coronavirus. 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
Coronavirus in Children With Medical Conditions
Some children may be at higher risk for more severe disease if they have other medical conditions such as:
- Blood disorders
- Heart or liver disease
- Kidney disease that needs dialysis
- A weakened immune system
How Can I Protect My Children From the Coronavirus?
There are vaccines which have been approved for emergency use to prevent COVID-19 in those 16 years and older. It is unclear if or when they will be approved for children. 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:
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; and 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. For now, 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. 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 third of a 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.
Wear cloth face masks 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 cloth face mask when they’re in a public place like a store or pharmacy, especially in areas with lots of COVID-19 cases. Fit is important, so make or buy masks that are sized for small faces. Try on masks at home so children have time to get used to them. Kids may be more likely to want to wear masks if they help make or decorate them. Make sure your child doesn’t touch the mask while wearing it. Remove it carefully, and wash it after each use.
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.
What to Do if Your Child Gets Sick With COVID-19
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 unlikely event that your child has COVID-19, they’ll likely stay at home to recover. There’s no specific treatment for the virus. Your child should rest and drink plenty of fluids. Talk to your doctor before giving your child an over-the-counter pain reliever that’s a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID), such as aspirin, ibuprofen, or naproxen. There have been some concerns that it may worsen the disease, but that, too, isn’t certain. 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 3 full days of no fever, their symptoms have improved, and it’s been at least 7 days have since they got sick.