Coronavirus in children: whether children are more at risk and what symptoms to look out for

Scientists still don't fully understand why the virus has had so little effect on children. Picture: Emanuele Cremaschi/Getty ImagesScientists still don't fully understand why the virus has had so little effect on children. Picture: Emanuele Cremaschi/Getty Images
Scientists still don't fully understand why the virus has had so little effect on children. Picture: Emanuele Cremaschi/Getty Images
As the number of reported cases of coronavirus continues to surge, how worried should parents be?

With more than 190,000 confirmed cases around the world and over 7,500 deaths, there have still been few reported instances of children contracting coronavirus.

When children have caught the virus, it has almost always been a mild version of it and there has not been a single reported death of a young child as a result of it.

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Here’s everything we know about how susceptible children are to the coronavirus.

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Can children get coronavirus?

Children can catch coronavirus, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, infections in people under the age of 18 have been reported – including in very young children.

On Thursday 5 March, a child in Liverpool was confirmed to have tested positive for the coronavirus.

However, there is currently no evidence that children are more susceptible to the virus than adults. In fact, most confirmed cases of Covid-19 reported from China have occurred in adults.

In China, where the coronavirus outbreak began, children made up just 2.4% of reported cases of Covid-19 according to a WHO-China Joint Mission report published in February 2020.

Of those cases, 2.5% suffered from severe symptoms and 0.2% became critically ill as a result of the virus.

Doctors in China have also reported that children who are infected will often be harder to diagnose – less than half experience a fever as a result of the virus and many display no symptoms at all.

Most of the children and teenagers affected in China presented mild symptoms at worst and recovered fully within two weeks. Even infants, who will usually be more susceptible to respiratory illnesses, have experienced mostly mild infections.

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However, premature infants and children with pre-existing health conditions are still considered to be at risk of developing complications if they are infected by the coronavirus.

Why are there fewer cases of Covid-19 among children?

There are some theories as to why children have been less affected by coronavirus.

These include:

- Children aren’t being exposed to the virus

- Children are being exposed but aren’t being infected

- Children are being infected but aren’t developing severe enough symptoms to be diagnosed

Essentially, we don’t know whether children are less prone to catching the virus in the first place or whether they are catching it but fighting it off so effectively that it is mostly going undetected.

This is an important distinction because, while children themselves may be at lower risk of developing symptoms, they could still act as carriers of the virus – passing it on to more vulnerable members of society.

The WHO-China Joint Mission report states: “From available data, and in the absence of results from serologic studies, it is not possible to determine the extent of infection among children, what role children play in transmission, whether children are less susceptible or if they present differently clinically (i.e. generally milder presentations).”

Can children spread coronavirus?

Children often act as efficient spreaders during disease outbreaks because they tend to congregate in large groups and will often continue to go about their usual routine in the midst of an outbreak because their immune system prevents them from falling ill.

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This is why, in spite of the low numbers of children being badly affected by the coronavirus, one of the first responses to an outbreak is to shut down schools. For example, Italy confirmed that it would shut all schools on Thursday 5 March as it battled to contain the coronavirus outbreak, with Ireland and the Netherlands following shortly after.

To help prevent the spread of the virus, parents are encouraged to ensure their kids engage in the same basic measures that everyone else has been advised to – thoroughly washing hands, coughing into the elbow and staying home when ill.

Parents are also advised to ensure children stay up to date on their vaccinations, including the influenza vaccine.

What symptoms should parents watch out for?

Since their symptoms tend to be so much milder, it can be especially hard to tell whether a child is carrying the coronavirus.

In many cases, children are responding as they would to a regular cold, suffering from a runny nose and a sore throat. Some have also reported gastrointestinal symptoms like vomiting and diarrhea.

In general, parents are advised to take extra precautions if their child is at all unwell to help keep them from spreading the virus further.

Coronavirus: the facts

What is coronavirus?

COVID-19 is a respiratory illness that can affect lungs and airways. It is caused by a virus called coronavirus.

What caused coronavirus?

The outbreak started in Wuhan in China in December 2019 and it is thought that the virus, like others of its kind, has come from animals.

How is it spread?

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As this is such a new illness, experts still aren’t sure how it is spread. But.similar viruses are spread in cough droplets. Therefore covering your nose and mouth when sneezing and coughing, and disposing of used tissues straight away is advised. Viruses like coronavirus cannot live outside the body for very long.

What are the symptoms?

The NHS states that the symptoms are: a dry cough, high temperature and shortness of breath - but these symptoms do not necessarily mean you have the illness. Look out for flu-like symptoms, such as aches and pains, nasal congestion, runny nose and a sore throat. It’s important to remember that some people may become infected but won’t develop any symptoms or feel unwell.

What precautions can be taken?

Washing your hands with soap and water thoroughly. The NHS also advises to cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your sleeve (not your hands) when you cough or sneeze; put used tissues in the bin immediately and try to avoid close contact with people who are unwell. Also avoiding touching eyes, nose and mouth unless your hands are clean.

Should I avoid public places?

Most people who feel well can continue to go to work, school and public places and should only stay at home and self isolate if advised by a medical professional or the coronavirus service.

What should I do if I feel unwell?

Don’t go to your GP but instead call NHS 111 or look online at the coronavirus service that can tell you if you need medical help and what to do next.

When to call NHS 111

NHS 111 should be used if you feel unwell with coronavirus symptoms, have been in a country with a high risk of coronavirus in the last 14 days or if you have been in close contact with someone with the virus.

Sources: World Health Organisation and NHS