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

By Nicole Harris
Updated June 17, 2021
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Check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for up-to-date information on statistics, disease spread, and travel advisories.

More than a year into the coronavirus pandemic in the United States, parents are facing new questions about the virus every day. Everyone, of course, is focused on kids' safety and closely watching the number of cases slow down across of the country.

More than 4,008,572 children have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), and they represent 14.1 percent of all coronavirus cases. Thankfully, children rarely experience severe symptoms of COVID-19. The AAP says that between 0.1 and 1.9 percent of all children diagnosed with COVID-19 were hospitalized, based on data compiled by states. And although some children have tragically died from the virus, only between 0 and 0.03 percent of child coronavirus cases are fatal.

That said, the highly contagious nature of the disease means even people who get a mild form of the virus could spread it to someone who could experience more serious symptoms or dangerous side effects. And with the virus still spreading around the country, public health officials still urge parents to take precautions to keep their families safe.

Here's everything parents need to know about COVID-19, from what it is to how to prevent your kids from getting it. 

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 new coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2)-and the disease it causes, COVID-19-is novel (never 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 isn't known yet. 

While experts still need to conduct more research, they say the current COVID-19 coronavirus has similarities to both SARS and MERS.

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)
| Credit: Emeric Fohlen/NurPhoto via Getty Images

How the Coronavirus Spreads

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

You might also catch COVID-19 by touching a surface that has the virus on it and then touching your eyes, nose, or mouth. A March 2020 study from National Institutes of Health, 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; this means people can get infected from small droplets and particles that linger in the air for minutes to hours. This mostly happens in "enclosed spaces that had inadequate ventilation," according to the CDC.

Along with the U.S., nearly every other country has confirmed coronavirus cases. Check out the CDC's live global map for updated information. 

Coronavirus Symptoms in Kids and Adults

COVID-19 has caused widespread panic among parents-partly because its symptoms (cough, shortness of breath, and fever) 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. The coronavirus 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 coronavirus symptoms include:

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

The severity of symptoms will vary between individuals. Some people get severe respiratory distress that leads to death, while others have minimal side effects. Experts have also reported a strange new disease called multisystem inflammatory syndrome (MIS-C) with ties to COVID-19 affecting children across the country.

"Experts are trying to narrow down risk factors associated with this new coronavirus," says 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. She adds that "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 new disease, unvaccinated people 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." 

About 80.9 percent of people have mild symptoms. Around 13.8 percent have severe symptoms that require hospitalization, and 4.7 percent have critical symptoms that require intensive care. Severe cases of the coronavirus can cause respiratory distress and death, especially in older adults and those with compromised immune systems. The global death rate is estimated at 3.4 percent-but since people with mild cases might not get diagnosed, experts expect it to actually be much lower.

On March 18, 2020, the CDC issued a report looking at the first cases of the coronavirus in the U.S. and found that while older patients are at a greater risk of dying and being hospitalized, nearly 40 percent of patients sick enough to be hospitalized were between ages 20 and 54. So while risk does increase with age, younger people are not immune.

However, parents might rest easier knowing that the coronavirus doesn't seem to impact babies and children as severely. Those that do contract the disease mostly have mild, cold-like symptoms (although severe complications are also possible).

Do Pregnant Women Need to Worry?

You may have heard reports about newborns who tested positive for the coronavirus. Many hospitals have even banned visitors-outside of one support person-during childbirth. Experts think that COVID-19 might pass from Mother to Baby through the placenta in certain situations, but evidence is pointing to SARS-CoV-2 not spreading through breast milk, which is why the CDC says it's safe for mothers infected with COVID-19 to breastfeed.

What's more, the CDC reports that pregnant women may suffer from more severe symptoms of COVID-19, so they should be extra diligent about following the precautionary measures outlined below.

One thing pregnant people should do is discuss whether or not getting the COVID-19 vaccine is the right choice for them. Experts recommend that pregnant and lactating people get vaccinated and promising research is even pointing to antibodies passing on to babies.

How to Prevent Coronavirus

To prevent COVID-19 if you aren't vaccinated, the most important things are practicing social distancing, wearing a mask in public, 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 when it's available to you.

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

Is there a coronavirus vaccine?

COVID-19 vaccines from drugmakers Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson are the first to be authorized for distribution in the U.S. and rollout has begun. 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 vaccination. Indeed, the FDA approved Pfizer for emergency use in kids 12 years and older, and they're expected to extend eligibility to younger kids this fall. Moderna is also planning to apply for emergency approval for kids ages 12-17 this June.

Should my child wear a face mask?

The CDC has released recommendations urging unvaccinated people and children 2 years old and up to wear face masks in an effort to help slow the virus, especially since it can be transmitted by those with no symptoms at all. The CDC updated their guidance with new information: Wearing a mask can not only help to protect others from coronavirus transmission, it can help protect you as well.

"Adopting universal masking policies can help avert future lockdowns, especially if combined with other non-pharmaceutical interventions such as social distancing, hand hygiene, and adequate ventilation," the CDC said.

The organization now says vaccinated individuals don't need to wear face masks in most situations indoors or outdoors, except "where required by federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws, rules, and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance."

How is America dealing with the coronavirus?

WHO, CDC, and state health partners have learned from previous coronavirus outbreaks, and they're taking every effort to control the disease. Here are a few steps that have been taken:

  • President Joe Biden unveiled a new 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 working on vaccines, treatments, and testing options. COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson are the first to be approved for emergency use in the U.S. and every American 12 and up is now eligible to receive a vaccine. Younger children might receive approval within the next several months.
  • The CDC advises that all unvaccinated travelers avoid global and domestic "nonessential travel," but has released new guidance saying fully vaccinated individuals can travel while taking precautions like wearing a mask, social distancing, and washing their hands often.
  • After closing in March 2020 and introducing a mix of virtual, hybrid, and in-person education for the 2020-2021 season, data is now pointing to schools being safe to reopen again. The Biden administration is following CDC guidance on how to do that safely.
  • In March 2021, the CDC released new guidance relaxing social distancing in schools, saying that students can now sit three feet apart (instead of six feet) as long as they're wearing a mask.
  • For unvaccinated people, the CDC recommends the use of cloth face masks in public settings where social distancing might be difficult. President Biden is mandating masks be worn on federal property, and on public transportation-including on airplanes, buses, and trains.
  • Coronavirus testing is now available across the country.
  • Americans with potential exposure have been asked to self-quarantine (unless you're fully vaccinated and not showing 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? According to the CDC, you should contact a health care provider and inform them of these symptoms. They'll decide if you need diagnostic testing for COVID-19.

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