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This is what actual science says about kids and COVID-19

As schools begin their fall curriculum (either via distance learning, in-person or a combination of both), NBC News’ health editor, Dr. Madelyn Fernstrom, looks at the latest studies regarding children and coronavirus.
Arizona Schools Reopen With In-Person Learning Amid Pandemic
A sign displayed in a classroom illustrates safety protocols to help curb the spread of Covid-19 at an elementary school in Surprise, Ariz., on Aug. 20, 2020.Cheney Orr / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Like so much of the research around COVID-19, what we know about how the disease affects children and teenagers continues to evolve. Because this is a virus that has infected people for less than a year, the news is continuously changing, and the long-term effects remain a question mark. As a parent, grandparent, teacher or caregiver, that can feel frustrating, but remember it’s a learn-as-you-go approach.

As schools begin their fall curriculum (either via distance learning, in-person or a combination of both), here’s a look at the most recent data:

Can children and teens spread COVID-19?

We don’t have definitive information about virus transmission in kids and teens yet. Early on in the pandemic, scientists thought children were rarely affected. While several small preliminary studies suggested less transmission of the virus from child to child (especially between younger children), a recent larger study out of South Korea shows age appears to make a big difference.

Studies show older children are just as likely to transmit the virus as adults, while younger children are about half as likely. While it’s not yet know why this is so, it does not appear to be explained by younger children carrying less of a viral load, so less likely to be contagious. Another recent study showed that younger children have similar viral loads to adults.

And while all symptomatic children are infectious, it’s still unclear whether or to what extent children without symptoms can spread the virus.

Children’s COVID-19 symptoms

An estimated 90 percent of children and teens who test positive for the virus have no or mild symptoms. Children’s symptoms are similar to adults, but they tend to be much milder and more cold-like. The most typical symptoms include fever, cough, runny nose, fatigue, muscle aches, and sometimes vomiting and/or diarrhea.

Most children recover within one to two weeks, but long-term effects are still relatively unknown given the newness of the virus.

When to seek immediate medical care for your child

According to the CDC, if you see any of the following symptoms, it’s important that you immediately seek medical care.

  • Prolonged fever for more than 5 days
  • Trouble breathing or catching their breath
  • Inability to keep down liquids
  • New confusion or inability to awaken
  • Bluish lips or blotchy blue or pale skin discoloration
  • Lethargy and extreme fatigue
  • Rapid heart rate

Ways to reduce risk in children

The same precautions for adults apply to children, including:

  • Social distancing by 6 feet
  • Wearing a mask (except for children under 2)
  • Washing hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and water
  • Keeping hands away from eyes, nose, and mouth (a tough habit to learn)

Risks for kids with pre-existing conditions

Certain medical conditions put kids and teens at higher risk of contracting the virus and developing complications. Those with asthma may have more severe symptoms. Poorly controlled diabetes weakens the immune system, making a child more vulnerable to infection. And those with obesity (with or without associated co-morbidities) are also at higher risk for contracting the virus.

A rare complication from COVID-19: MIS-C

A serious condition related to COVID-19 has been identified in a few hundred children across the country, and garnered attention from news outlets early on. Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children (MIS-C) can send the body into a state of shock and organ failure. Developing about two to six weeks after COVID-19 infection, MIS-C requires immediate medical help as symptoms can become serious quickly.

Madelyn Fernstrom, Ph.D. is the NBC News’ health Editor. Follow her on Twitter @drfernstrom.