Kids and COVID-19: Everything You Need to Know

Aaron S. Weinberg MD, MPhil
February 21, 2022
8 mins

As the COVID-19 pandemic enters its third year, we’re approaching a grim milestone: one million deaths from COVID-19 in the U.S. alone, with more than 75 million cases recorded. For the past two years, we’ve all done our best to avoid getting sick and to protect our loved ones and our communities. Most adults have a clear idea of what we should be doing to stay safe and prevent the spread of the virus: getting vaccinated (including a booster shot), wearing masks in public places, washing hands frequently, staying physically distant, and following other local and national guidelines. (For more, read “Why COVID-19 Precautions Are Still Necessary.”)  

However, protecting our families becomes a bit more complex when we’re talking about children. Many people wonder whether kids can get COVID-19, and how likely it is to happen. They’re also concerned about how COVID-19 symptoms show up in kids and whether any additional precautions should be taken once they start socializing with other families.

Here is everything you need to know about children and COVID-19, and what you should do if your child develops symptoms or tests positive.

Can Kids Get COVID-19?

Yes, children of all ages — even babies —  can get COVID-19. In addition to being carriers of the virus themselves, they can also transmit it to other people.

A growing body of research on COVID-19 suggests that children are less likely to be infected, develop symptoms, and transmit the virus to others. Overall, children account for less than 10 percent of U.S. cases, and they generally do not develop symptoms as often as adults. However, even though they account for fewer symptomatic cases, they can spread the virus even if they are not showing symptoms.

Although the fact that, in general, children are less vulnerable to the adverse effects of COVID-19 is a relief to many parents, life-threatening symptoms are a possibility for everyone, including children.

Can Newborns Get COVID-19?

COVID-19 is particularly concerning for parents of newborns and infants, who are vulnerable to illness because of their developing immune systems. There have been documented cases of newborns and infants contracting COVID-19, although most are asymptomatic and recover with no ill effects. In some cases, babies who develop COVID-19 are so young that doctors can’t tell whether they developed the infection in utero, during their birth, or afterward.

If you are caring for your young baby and develop COVID-19, it’s recommended that you wash your hands with soap and water regularly and wear a well-fitting mask whenever you are within six feet of your child. (For more, read “Breakthrough COVID-19 Cases: What to Do If You Get Sick.”) 

Common COVID-19 Symptoms in Children

Having a child who tests positive for COVID-19 can be frightening for parents. Fortunately, most children are asymptomatic or develop only mild symptoms. Here are some of the most common symptoms you should be aware of:

     • Fever

     • Cough

     • Chills

     • Muscle aches

     • Chest pain

     • New loss of smell and taste

     • Rash on the feet and hands

     • Sore throat

     • Nasal congestion

     • Severe headache

Additionally, there are a few other risk factors to keep in mind if your child develops COVID-19. Some medical conditions or lifestyle factors that could make their symptoms worse include:

     • Diabetes

     • Obesity

     • Asthma

     • Congenital heart conditions

     • Certain genetic, nervous system, or metabolic conditions

What to Do If Your Child Is Sick with COVID-19

While most COVID-19 cases in children are mild or asymptomatic, it’s essential to monitor them closely as soon as you think they may be ill. If they develop symptoms such as fever, cough, vomiting, diarrhea, rash, or dizziness, call your healthcare provider right away. If your child has been exposed to someone with COVID-19, or if they have been in an area with high transmission rates, let the provider know.

Clickable text ad that says "Carbon Health: Primary care that meets you where you are, book a virtual or in-person appointment."

Depending on the severity and number of symptoms, your doctor will decide whether you should continue treating your child at home or seek additional treatment at a clinic or hospital. (Read more about treating COVID-19 symptoms at home.)

If your child develops severe symptoms, you should take them to an emergency room right away. These symptoms include:

     • Breathing problems

     • Confusion

     • Chest pain

     • Sweaty, pale, or blotchy skin

     • Dizziness

     • Severe belly pain

If your child is struggling to take a breath, cannot talk without becoming breathless, or is blue or faint, call 911 right away.

Testing Children and Babies for COVID-19

If your doctor advises a test for COVID-19 or if your child has a known exposure, you should get them tested right away. Children are tested for COVID-19 like any other person. A swab is inserted into the nose (and sometimes into the mouth as well) and rotated to collect a sample. This can be unpleasant, but most providers can do this in a calm and gentle way that will not hurt your child.

Are Vaccines Approved for Kids?

One of the best ways to protect your child against COVID-19 is to have them vaccinated. COVID-19 vaccines for children ages five and up are currently available across the U.S.

Two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, given three weeks apart, are currently recommended for children ages 5 to 11.  

For children ages 12 to 15, a slightly larger dose protocol of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is recommended. The current vaccine is given in two shots, with the second given as many as six weeks after the first dose.

For children ages 16 and older, the recommended dosage of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is two shots, given three to six weeks apart.

Overall, these vaccines are 91 to 100 percent effective in preventing COVID-19 in these age groups.

Is It Safe for a Pregnant Person to Get the COVID-19 Vaccine?

Right now, the CDC (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) recommends that all people who are pregnant or breastfeeding get vaccinated against COVID-19. Multiple studies have shown that these vaccines are safe and effective for both parents and their unborn babies. 

What Are the Side Effects of COVID-19 Vaccines?

While there has been some concern about possible side effects from various COVID-19 vaccines, the reality is that both the long- and short-term effects of developing COVID-19 are far more concerning than any of the vaccine side effects being reported. Doctors and health professionals recommend vaccines for children who are five years old or older.

Side effects, although rare, still do happen. If your child develops chest pain, shortness of breath, or heart palpitations within a week of vaccination, you should consult their doctor.  

How Can I Prevent My Child from Developing COVID-19?

To prevent your child from getting sick and to help limit community spread, it’s important to take precautionary measures.

Here are some of the best ways of stopping the spread of COVID-19 in children.

     • Limit the number of people you socialize with outside of your immediate family.

     • Ensure that your child learns how to practice physical distancing when in public spaces.

     • Opt for outdoor playdates, rather than extended periods indoors with people who are not in your household.

     • Teach your child some ground rules about COVID-19 safety, including how to wash their hands and when they should wear a mask.

     • Institute regular times for washing hands, including before meals and after returning home from school.   

     • Regularly clean and disinfect your home, especially high-touch surfaces like faucets and door handles.

Keeping your child safe from COVID-19 can bean exhausting job, but there are many resources out there that can help parents. One of the most important is your and your child’s healthcare team. Download the Carbon Health app or visit our website to connect with a doctor in your area today.

Carbon Health’s medical content is reviewed and approved by healthcare professionals before it is published. But note that our knowledge and understanding of COVID-19 are developing and changing very rapidly; if you have questions or concerns about COVID-19 precautions, treatments, and vaccinations, please talk to your healthcare provider.

Aaron S. Weinberg MD, MPhil

Aaron S. Weinberg, MD, MPhil, is Director of Program Development at Carbon Health and triple board-certified in Pulmonary, Critical Care, and Internal Medicine.