Here's Everything You Need to Know About COVID-19 in Kids

There's no doubt that the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) has been scary. Here’s everything you need to know about the disease that's infected millions of people worldwide.

Check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for up-to-date information on statistics, disease spread, and travel advisories.

After living through over two years of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States, parents continue to face new and lingering questions about the virus. Many are understandably still focused on kids' safety and getting vaccinated so that they're as protected as possible from community spread and future outbreaks.

As of May 2022, more than 13 million children have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), and children represent 19 percent of all coronavirus infections. Thankfully, children rarely experience severe symptoms of COVID-19. The AAP says that between 0.1 and 1.5 percent of all children diagnosed with COVID-19 have been hospitalized, based on data compiled by states. And although some children have tragically died from the virus, only between 0 and 0.01 percent of pediatric coronavirus cases are fatal.

That said, the highly contagious nature of COVID-19 means even people who experience a mild or asymptomatic case can spread it to someone who could experience more serious symptoms or dangerous complications. While most masking and social distancing requirements have now been lifted in the U.S., public health officials continue to urge parents to take precautions to keep their families safe, particularly for those living in areas with high community spread who are not up-to-date on their COVID-19 vaccines and/or immunocompromised.

Here's everything parents need to know about COVID-19, from what it is and how to prevent your kids from getting it to what to do if someone in your family has been exposed or tests positive.

What Is the Coronavirus?

Coronaviruses are common among animals like bats, camels, and cats, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But seven varieties, called "zoonotic viruses," can be passed from animals to humans, and then from humans to other humans. These diseases often lead to respiratory symptoms that range from mild to severe.

The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2) is novel, meaning that it had previously never been seen before. Officials have traced the novel coronavirus back to a seafood and live animal market in Wuhan, China. The CDC reported that COVID-19 is a betacoronavirus, which means it originated in bats. It may have spread to another animal before making its way to humans, but that information is still unconfirmed.

Experts continue to conduct research on COVID-19, but they say the current COVID-19 coronavirus has similarities to both severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS). New variants also continue to emerge around the world.

Travellers family wear masks to avoid transmission of coronavirus upon arrival at Terminal 2 of Roissy Charles de Gaulle Airport in Roissy, France, on February 29, 2020.
Travellers family wear masks to avoid transmission of coronavirus upon arrival at Terminal 2 of Roissy Charles de Gaulle Airport in Roissy, France, on February 29, 2020. (Photo by Emeric Fohlen/NurPhoto via Getty Images). Emeric Fohlen/NurPhoto via Getty Images

How the Coronavirus Spreads

Officials have determined that the novel coronavirus likely had animal-to-human origins before it began spreading between people. COVID-19 is mainly contracted through respiratory droplets from coughing, sneezing, talking, breathing, singing, etc. These droplets can travel up to 6 feet, and they can spread COVID-19 when inhaled or deposited on the mucus membranes of those in close contact with the infected individual. That's why social distancing and wearing masks have been key to preventing COVID-19 transmission.

You might also catch COVID-19 by touching a surface that has the virus on it and then touching your eyes, nose, or mouth—although this isn't the primary mode of transmission. A March 2020 study from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), CDC, UCLA, and Princeton University scientists suggests that the coronavirus can survive for three hours in the air, four hours on copper, 24 hours on cardboard, and two to three days on stainless steel and plastic.

The CDC confirmed that airborne transmission is also possible, which means that people can become infected by small droplets and particles that linger in the air for minutes to hours. This type of transmission mostly happens in enclosed spaces with inadequate ventilation, according to the CDC.

Along with the U.S., nearly every other country has confirmed coronavirus cases.

COVID-19 Symptoms in Kids and Adults

COVID-19 has caused widespread panic among parents—partly because its symptoms are almost identical to influenza, says Miryam Wahrman, Ph.D., biology professor and director of the microbiology research lab at William Paterson University in Wayne, New Jersey, and author of The Hand Book: Surviving in a Germ-Filled World.

The CDC says that symptoms usually appear within two to 14 days of exposure to the virus. COVID-19 may look very similar to seasonal influenza since both illnesses affect the respiratory tract. "The only way to differentiate is to do a clinical test," explains Dr. Wahrman.

According to the CDC, common COVID-19 symptoms include:

  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Muscle pain
  • Headache
  • Sore throat
  • New loss of taste or smell
  • Digestive issues (nausea, vomiting, diarrhea)
  • Congestion or runny nose
  • Fatigue

The severity of symptoms will vary between individuals. Some people, particularly those with preexisting health conditions, experience severe respiratory distress that can lead to hospitalization or even death, while others have minimal symptoms. Experts have also reported a strange condition called multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C) with ties to past COVID-19 infection that has affected some children across the country.

According to Kathleen DiCaprio, M.D., an infectious disease expert from Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine in New York City, who helped develop the vaccine for the Ebola virus, "more severe cases seem to be in patients who are older and have pre-existing medical conditions."

How Dangerous Is COVID-19?

Since COVID-19 is a relatively new disease, people who haven't been vaccinated against it don't have any antibodies to combat it, according to Sharon Nachman, M.D., Chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Stony Brook Children's Hospital. "If you're exposed, you most likely will get the illness."

While most people have mild or no symptoms, some experience severe symptoms and complications that require hospitalization, and a minority have critical symptoms that need intensive care. Severe cases of COVID-19 can cause respiratory distress and death, especially in older adults and those with compromised immune systems.

Parents might rest easier knowing that the coronavirus doesn't seem to impact babies and children as severely. Those that do become infected mostly have mild, cold-like symptoms (although severe complications are also possible). This trend might change with the emergence of future variants, however.

Do Pregnant People Need to Worry?

You may have heard reports about newborns who tested positive for the coronavirus. At the height of the pandemic, many hospitals even banned visitors—outside of one support person—during childbirth.

Experts think that COVID-19 may pass from a pregnant person to their baby through the placenta in certain situations, but several studies including one published in Pediatric Research in 2022 have found no evidence that breast milk from people with COVID-19 contains virus capable of causing an infection in a newborn or that breastfeeding and chestfeeding represent a risk factor for transmission.

As a result, the CDC says it's likely safe for parents infected with COVID-19 to breastfeed. In fact, breast milk from a person with COVID-19 may even offer some protective benefits to the newborn, according to a 2021 study.

The CDC reports, however, that pregnant people are at a higher risk for severe illness related to the coronavirus, so they should be extra diligent about following the precautionary measures. Pregnant people are advised to discuss getting the COVID-19 vaccine with their doctor.

Experts urge pregnant and lactating people to get vaccinated for their own health, and promising research points to maternal antibodies passing to babies during pregnancy and through breastfeeding, potentially providing them with some passive immunity.

How to Prevent COVID-19

Vaccination is the best way to prevent severe illness, hospitalization, and death from COVID-19. Other important safety measures include wearing a mask in public indoor spaces and maintaining proper hand hygiene.

"Wash your hands appropriately with soap and water as needed, which reduces your risk of picking up germs that cause disease," says Dr. Wahrman. It's especially important to wash your hands before eating or touching your eyes, nose, and mouth. Scrub with soap and water for at least 20 seconds; Dr. DiCaprio recommends that kids sing "Happy Birthday" to hit the time mark.

Avoid contact with anyone exhibiting signs of illness. If you're sick, the CDC recommends staying home. Cover your mouth when you sneeze or cough, and disinfect your home frequently. Also, get the COVID-19 vaccine and booster shots when it's available to you and your children.

We asked experts to answer a few other prevention questions for parents, and here's what they had to say.

What should I know about the coronavirus vaccine?

COVID-19 vaccines from drugmakers Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson were the first to be authorized for distribution in the U.S. Though some Americans—namely health care workers, essential workers, and some of the high-risk population—received their shots first, the majority of the country is now eligible for free vaccination and booster shots. Indeed, vaccines have been approved for everyone 6 months and older.

Should my child wear a face mask?

In response to higher levels of vaccination and lower levels of community spread, the CDC's masking recommendations have loosened since they were first released in 2020. However, in areas with high COVID-19 community levels, it's still urged for those 2 years old and up to wear face masks in crowded indoor spaces in an effort to slow COVID-19 transmission, especially since it can be transmitted by those with no symptoms at all. The CDC also advises that wearing a mask can not only help to protect others from coronavirus transmission, but it can also help protect you as well.

Mask wearing can help avert future lockdowns, "especially if combined with other non-pharmaceutical interventions such as social distancing, hand hygiene, and adequate ventilation," the CDC says. Masking continues to be required in health care settings regardless of vaccination status. Children may also choose to wear a mask to school.

How is the U.S. dealing with the coronavirus?

The World Health Organization (WHO), CDC, and state health partners continue to make efforts to control the disease. Here are a few steps that have been taken in the U.S.:

  • In January 2021, President Joe Biden unveiled a national coronavirus response plan that included mask-wearing policies, fixing vaccine distribution issues, travel restrictions, and ramping up testing.
  • Medical organizations around the world have been continuing to develop vaccines, treatments, and testing options. COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson were the first to be approved for emergency use in the U.S. and every American 6 months and up is now eligible to receive a vaccine.
  • Vaccine booster shots are recommended for everyone 5 and up, at least five months after the primary vaccine series (three months for people who are moderately or severely immunocompromised), which should help combat waning vaccine immunity over time. A second booster shot is recommended at least four months after the first booster shot for adults aged 50 and older and people who are moderately or severely immunocompromised.
  • As of April 18, 2022, the mask mandate on public transportation was lifted as a result of a court order; however, the CDC continues to recommend that individuals who travel using public transportation take precautions like wearing a mask, social distancing, avoiding crowds, and washing their hands often. All international travelers must receive a negative test before entering the U.S., regardless of vaccination status.
  • After closing in March 2020 and introducing a mix of virtual, hybrid, and in-person education for the 2020–2021 school year, data showed schools were safe to reopen. The Biden administration followed CDC guidance on how to do that safely. Despite the lifting of mask mandates in most schools, the CDC continues to recommend that students, teachers, and staff wear masks in school.
  • The CDC recommends wearing a well-fitting mask when indoors in public, regardless of vaccination status or person risk, in areas where COVID-19 community levels are rated as "high."
  • Coronavirus testing is now available across the country. At-home COVID tests are also available.

What to Do if You've Been Exposed to the Coronavirus

Americans who have been exposed to COVID-19 have been advised to get tested, regardless of whether they have symptoms of COVID-19. If showing symptoms, it is recommended that you get tested right away. If you do not develop symptoms, then the CDC recommends getting tested at least five days after exposure.

The CDC has also updated its quarantine and isolation guidance to shorten the recommended quarantine time for people exposed to COVID-19. If you are up-to-date on your COVID-19 vaccines, you do not need to quarantine following an exposure unless you test positive for COVID-19, but it is recommended that you take precautions (like wearing a mask when around others) for 10 full days following exposure.

If, on the other hand, you are not up-to-date on your COVID-19 vaccines, the CDC guidelines call for quarantining for five full days following exposure, followed by five days of wearing a mask when around others.

People who have had COVID-19 in the past 90 days do not need to quarantine after exposure regardless of vaccination status unless they develop symptoms.

What to Do if You Think You Have the Coronavirus

Do you have fever, cough, shortness of breath, or other symptoms of COVID-19? The CDC recommends that anyone with any signs or symptoms of COVID-19 get tested, regardless of vaccination status or prior infection.

"If you get tested because you have symptoms or were potentially exposed to the virus, you should stay away from others pending test results and follow the advice of your health care provider or a public health professional," the CDC advises.

There is currently no universally recommended treatment regime for COVID-19. Your health care provider will advise you on steps to take, but the CDC suggests treating mild COVID-19 illness similarly to the flu. You should get lots of rest and fluids, take fever-reducing medication, and use a humidifier.

What to Do if You Test Positive for COVID-19

If you or your kids do receive a positive test result, isolation is recommended.

The CDC has shortened the recommended time for isolation for people with asymptomatic COVID-19 (a positive test result with no symptoms) from 10 days to five days, followed by five more days of wearing a mask when around others. The CDC explains that the change was implemented due to science demonstrating that the majority of SARS-CoV-2 transmission occurs early in the course of illness, generally during a few days prior to the onset of symptoms and the two to three days after.

For people with symptoms, a five-day isolation period is still recommended followed by five days of wearing a mask around others as long as their symptoms are improving. People who have a fever should stay home until fever-free for at least 24 hours without the use of fever-reducing medications.

If symptoms worsen or do not seem to be improving, you should contact your doctor or local emergency room for guidance.

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