Children of all ages can become ill with coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). But most kids who are infected typically don’t become as sick as adults and some might not show any symptoms at all. Know the signs and symptoms of COVID-19 in babies and children, why children might be affected differently by COVID-19, and what you can do to prevent the spread of the virus.
How likely is it for a child to become sick with coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19)?
While all children are capable of getting the virus that causes COVID-19, they don’t become sick as often as adults. Most children have mild symptoms or no symptoms.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association, in the U.S. children represent about 13% of all COVID-19 cases. Research suggests that children younger than ages 10 to 14 are less likely to become infected with the virus that causes COVID-19 compared to people age 20 and older.
However, some children become severely ill with COVID-19. They might need to be hospitalized, treated in the intensive care unit or placed on a ventilator to help them breathe, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
In addition, children with underlying conditions, such as obesity, diabetes, and asthma, might be at higher risk of serious illness with COVID-19. Children who have congenital heart disease, genetic conditions, or conditions affecting the nervous system or metabolism also might be at higher risk of serious illness with COVID-19.
Research also suggests disproportionately higher rates of COVID-19 in Hispanic and non-Hispanic Black children than in non-Hispanic white children.
Rarely, some children might also develop a serious condition that appears to be linked to COVID-19.
Why do children react differently to COVID-19?
The answer isn’t clear yet. Some experts suggest that children might not be as severely affected by COVID-19 because there are other coronaviruses that spread in the community and cause diseases such as the common cold. Since children often get colds, their immune systems might be primed to provide them with some protection against COVID-19. It’s also possible that children’s immune systems interact with the virus differently than do adults’ immune systems. Some adults are getting sick because their immune systems seem to overreact to the virus, causing more damage to their bodies. This may be less likely to happen in children.
How are babies affected by COVID-19?
Babies under age 1 might be at higher risk of severe illness with COVID-19 than older children. This is likely due to their immature immune systems and smaller airways, which make them more likely to develop breathing issues with respiratory virus infections.
Newborns can become infected with the virus that causes COVID-19 during childbirth or by exposure to sick caregivers after delivery. If you have COVID-19 or are waiting for test results due to symptoms, it’s recommended during hospitalization after childbirth that you wear a cloth face mask and have clean hands when caring for your newborn. Keeping your newborn’s crib by your bed while you are in the hospital is OK, but it’s also recommended that you maintain a reasonable distance from your baby when possible. When these steps are taken, the risk of a newborn becoming infected with the COVID-19 virus is low. However, if you are severely ill with COVID-19, you might need to be temporarily separated from your newborn.
Infants who have COVID-19 or who can’t be tested and have no symptoms might be discharged from the hospital, depending on the circumstances. It’s recommended that the baby’s caregivers wear face masks and wash their hands to protect themselves. Frequent follow-up with the baby’s health care provider is needed — by phone, virtual visits or in-office visits — for 14 days. Infants who test negative for COVID-19 can be sent home from the hospital.
Is there a COVID-19 vaccine for children?
The Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is now available to people age 12 and older. The FDA first gave this vaccine emergency use authorization for people age 16 and older in late 2020. This vaccine requires two injections given 21 days apart. The second dose can be given up to six weeks after the first dose if needed.
Research has shown that Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is 100% effective in preventing the COVID-19 virus in children ages 12 through 15. Previous research has shown that the vaccine is 95% effective in preventing the COVID-19 virus with symptoms in people age 16 and older.
Studies on the use of COVID-19 vaccines in younger children are also in progress.