- Only children over age 12 can get vaccinated against COVID-19, leaving many unprotected.
- With schools going back to in-person classes, parents are more anxious than ever about symptoms.
- Wearing masks, getting vaccinated, and washing hands can help prevent kids from getting COVID-19 or the flu.
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After a year and a half of mostly distance learning for school-age children, millions of kids are headed back into classrooms. While lots of parents are thrilled to get back to a sense of normal, the Delta variant and the usual wave of colds and common respiratory infections that spread through schools mean a lot of anxiety too. Here’s what parents need to know.
To know if it’s COVID-19 or a cold, you need to test
As a pediatric provider, I can say the most common calls and questions coming in right now center on the puzzle of “Is it a cold or COVID-19?“
It’s easy to see why.
COVID-19 can present in children with a broad range of symptoms, most of which are identical to those of a common cold, including a low-grade fever, runny nose, sore throat, headaches, cough, and gastrointestinal problems. A child can have any combination of symptoms, or none of them.
The loss of taste and smell is not as common in kids, especially the younger ones. Most parents want to know the one specific thing you’d see in a COVID-19 infection that you wouldn’t in a common cold or upper-respiratory infection, but there is rarely a distinction.
The only unique symptom we’ve seen in some children and teens with COVID-19 is “COVID toes,” or bruise-like skin lesions, especially on the toes. This is somewhat rare, and a lack of COVID toes does not rule out a positive diagnosis.
Who and how to test
It can be unclear whether to test a child given how minor their symptoms can be and how easily they can be quarantined to prevent the virus from spreading.
If there’s a household member at high risk, such as an immunocompromised or older person, and if the child is in school, playing sports, or in other activities requiring social interaction, the child should absolutely be tested.
Getting your child tested quickly through their pediatrician or local urgent care will enable more informed decision-making.
What to do if your child tests positive
If a child tests positive, healthcare providers assume everyone in the household is positive as well. While that’s not always true, everyone should be tested and quarantine along with the child.
There are no approved treatments for COVID-19 in children other than simple comfort measures like getting rest and drinking fluids to stay hydrated.
Watch for and inform your pediatrician about signs that your child is suffering from a more serious illness caused by COVID-19, like MIS-C, or multisystem inflammatory syndrome, which can present with signs of sudden respiratory distress, acute chest pain, high fever, shortness of breath, and severe abdominal pain.
Overall, the biggest message pediatricians have for parents this fall is to focus on COVID-19 prevention.
Wearing masks and getting vaccinated are the two most important measures that can prevent spread. And continuing with good hygiene such as frequent handwashing is critical for preventing any kind of illness, even the common cold or the flu.
Dr. Natalya Vernovsky is a pediatrician in Northbrook, Illinois, and is affiliated with multiple hospitals in the area, including Advocate Lutheran General Hospital and Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. She is also a physician with JustAnswer. She received her medical degree from Rush Medical College and has been in practice for more than 20 years.