How to Spot COVID-19 Symptoms in Kids & When to Get Help
As the world continues to grapple with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, it's crucial for parents and caregivers to be well-informed about the symptoms of the virus, especially when it comes to children. While children tend to have milder cases of COVID-19 compared to adults, it's essential to recognize the signs early on to ensure their health and safety.
Incubation Period for COVID-19 in Kids
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) states that the incubation period for COVID-19 is believed to extend to 2 weeks, but current research indicates that incubation periods may differ depending on the particular variant of the virus. A study done when the Delta variant was prevalent found that it usually takes around 4.3 days for symptoms to show up. For other variants like Alpha and Beta, it takes about 5 days. When the Omicron variant transmission was high, studies showed that COVID-19 Omicron symptoms in kids typically appeared after 3 to 4 days.
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Symptoms of COVID-19 in Kids
Understanding how COVID-19 affects kids has been tricky due to factors like many symptom-free cases and testing variations among age groups. Research shows that kids might catch the virus similarly to adults, but often without showing symptoms or with milder ones. You can visit the Pediatric Data page of the CDC's COVID Data Tracker to view updated case trends and other epidemiological data related to children and adults.
COVID-19 symptoms in kids usually include fever and cough, but they might also have a sore throat, runny nose, headache, tiredness, trouble breathing, or stomach problems like nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea. According to the CDC, some studies found that when the Omicron variant was widespread, there was more croup (a coughing condition) even though other usual causes were going down. The symptoms of COVID-19 in kids can be similar to other illnesses, which makes it hard to tell if it's COVID-19. So, even if kids have mild symptoms, it's a good idea to test them for the virus.
Most kids who get infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus don't have strong symptoms or only have mild sickness. But some kids can get seriously sick and end up in the hospital, ICU, need a ventilator, or even die. Some of the risk factors for serious illness include the following:
- Pre-existing medical conditions: Studies show that certain health conditions like obesity, diabetes, heart, lung, or brain disorders can increase the chance of severe COVID-19 outcomes. Having more than one of these conditions can make it even riskier.
- Age: Age also plays a role. Babies are more likely to get severely sick. Among kids aged 0-4, hospitalizations went up during the Omicron period. Teens aged 12-17 had higher hospitalization rates compared to kids aged 5-11.
- Variant: Different virus versions, like Delta or Omicron, can affect how bad the illness gets. Hospitalization rates rose with Delta and even more with Omicron, but kids generally had milder cases with Omicron.
Vaccines help a lot. They reduce the risk of hospitalization for kids and critical illness in teens. Boosters help too, especially for older kids. Vaccinating pregnant moms also lowered the risk of hospitalization for their babies under 6 months.
Testing, Diagnosis, and Recommendations for Isolation
To check whether a child has a current SARS-CoV-2 infection (the virus causing COVID-19), doctors use tests like nucleic acid amplification tests (NAATs) and antigen tests. These tests help find infections early and stop the spread of COVID-19. If someone has COVID-19 symptoms or has been close to someone with COVID-19, they should get tested.
Usually, babies born to COVID-19-positive parents don't have the virus right after birth. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests testing these healthy babies before leaving the hospital. If a newborn shows any signs of COVID-19, they should get tested right away.
Some schools may provide tests for students and staff who have COVID-19 symptoms or were around someone with COVID-19. Doing tests, using masks, getting vaccinated, and using other safety measures can stop the virus from spreading to students, staff, and their families. You can learn more about testing and other recommendations for the prevention of COVID-19 in school settings on the CDC’s Operational Guidance for K-12 Schools and Early Care and Education Programs to Support Safe In-Person Learning webpage.
When to Seek Medical Treatment
Most kids with COVID-19 have no symptoms or mild symptoms and can be treated at home. Some children become very ill and need hospital care. Treating severe COVID-19 in kids includes helping with breathing problems, lung issues, and heart problems among other issues. Some medicines used for adults with severe COVID-19 can also be used for kids, but not all of them. If your child has been diagnosed with COVID-19, keep an eye out for the following emergency warning signs:
- Difficulty breathing
- Persistent pain or pressure in the chest
- New confusion
- Trouble waking or staying awake
- Pale, gray, or blue-colored skin, lips, or nail beds, depending on skin tone
If your child is showing any of these signs, call 911 or call ahead to your local emergency facility and let them know that you need care for a child who has or may have COVID-19.
Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children (MIS-C)
A rare but serious condition associated with COVID-19 is Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children (MIS-C). This condition involves inflammation of various body parts, including the heart, lungs, skin, eyes, or gastrointestinal organs. MIS-C usually shows up 2 to 6 weeks after a SARS-CoV-2 infection. Kids with MIS-C are often really sick, and over 50% might need ICU care. MIS-C can be difficult to diagnose because its symptoms mimic those of several other conditions like Kawasaki Disease, toxic shock syndrome, or severe COVID-19.
Symptoms may include persistent fever, abdominal pain, rash, bloodshot eyes, or swollen hands and feet. If you notice any of these symptoms, seek medical attention immediately. Getting vaccinated can help avoid MIS-C. So, it's a good idea to make sure eligible kids get their COVID-19 shots.
The Bottom Line
Being vigilant about symptoms and practicing preventive measures can help safeguard your child's health and the health of those around them. As the situation continues to evolve, remember that staying informed with the latest information and working closely with healthcare professionals is essential for the well-being of your child and your community.
* This article contains information from the Centers of Disease Control updated on May 11, 2023. The information on our site is NOT medical advice for any specific person or condition. It is only meant as general information. Please contact your health provider if you have any medical questions or concerns about your child or yourself.
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