March 17, 2020
Can kids get COVID-19?
Both kids and adults can become infected with COVID-19, since it is a new virus and none of us have immunity to it. As COVID-19 has continued to spread in affected countries including our own, we’ve still believe that children are still more likely to have mild respiratory symptoms that may mimic other illnesses or no symptoms at all.
However, as with many respiratory viruses, some children may be more at risk of having severe infection because of age or underlying chronic health problems. Any reported death of a child is tragic and frightening but information from all over the world consistently shows that this is a very rare occurrence in children.
Why are cases in kids less severe?
We don’t fully understand why children don’t appear to be as severely affected by COVID-19, but this is similar to what happened with two other “zoonotic” coronaviruses, SARS and MERS.
There are a few proposed factors that may be at play.
- A child may not have a lot of the same health problems that adults do like diabetes, COPD, or heart disease, or have high risk habits like prolonged smoking and vaping that could affect their lung function.
- A child’s immune system functions differently. Some severely affected adults may be suffering from a dangerous immune system response called cytokine storm where fluids and immune cells may accumulate and block off airways to the lungs, resulting in death. This does not appear to be happening in younger populations.
- There are factors contributing to how the virus gets into our cells that may explain some of the discrepancies. COVID-19 binds to a receptor called ACE2 and children may have lower levels of these than adults.
How does social distancing help if kids aren’t the ones being severely impacted?
Kids are very social creatures who love to share and don’t always have proper hygiene in mind. They’re not washing their hands as regularly or thoroughly as they should (but let’s get real, this is true in adults, too!). Places like schools and playgrounds have frequently touched surfaces where the virus could hang out and this factored into decisions about their closure.
So although children are less likely to have severe symptoms, we know that people can spread this infection even when symptoms are absent. Children could feel totally fine but become infected and bring the virus home to more vulnerable members of the household like a grandparent or immunocompromised family member.
What can parents do to help keep their kids healthy?
Common sense practices that we recommend every flu season really go a long way in preventing disease. Encourage your kids to keep their hands clean and out of their nose, eyes and mouth. If they do have a cough, instruct them to cough into their elbow and keep them home and away from older adults or those with compromised immune systems if they don’t feel well. Follow any instructions you have been given about social distancing and staying out of crowds. Be a good role model for your children and do these things as well!
Other things you can do to protect your kids from getting sick:
- Avoid people who are sick (coughing and sneezing)
- Clean and disinfect high-touch surfaces daily in household common areas (e.g. tables, hard-backed chairs, doorknobs, light switches, remotes, handles, desks, toilets, sinks)
- Launder items including washable plush toys as appropriate in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions. If possible, launder items using the warmest appropriate water setting for the items and dry items completely.
This remains frightening territory for us all and our children are likely to become very anxious, too. The media is saturated with information about this pandemic and not all of it is useful or true. Young children and even pets will pick up on adult anxiety. Concentrate on what we can do to stay healthy and help each other, rather than what we cannot control. We have great technology at our disposal and can reach out to others by FaceTime or Skype to get through this!
Next Steps & Resources
- Get to know our pediatric infectious diseases sources, Julia Ann Piwoz, M.D.and Aryeh Zvi Baer, M.D.
- Watch: How to Talk to Your Kids About Coronavirus
- Read: How to Manage Anxiety Related to Coronavirus
- Feeling ill? Connect with a doc through telemedicine.
- CDC Resources on Caring for Children during COVID-19