What Every Parent Needs to Know About Coronavirus

Coronavirus is dominating the news right now, and as a parent it’s a little scary. The virus, known as COVID-19, continues to spread across the country and around the world, and it can be hard to know what it all really means for your family. Here’s what infectious disease experts want you to know about coronavirus as a parent, plus what you can do to protect your kids.

What Is Coronavirus?

Human coronaviruses are actually fairly common, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). There are seven different types of coronaviruses known to scientists, and most of them cause mild illness like colds, says William Schaffner, MD, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tennessee. However, three types of coronavirus can cause more severe illness. Those include MERS-CoV, SARS-CoV, and the novel form of coronavirus that’s making today’s news, COVID-19. This form of coronavirus was only recently found to infect people. It originated in Wuhan, China, and to date has been detected in more than 100 locations around the globe.

Coronavirus is a highly contagious illness. “This virus is transmitted in a way that’s very similar to influenza or any of the seasonal common cold viruses,” says Juan Salazar, MD, a pediatric infectious disease specialist and physician in chief at Connecticut Children’s. “Close exposure to someone who is coughing or has a runny nose will pose a risk of transmission. Touching surfaces with your hands and then touching your face, eyes or mouth with your hands can also transmit the virus.”

Risks of Coronavirus in Babies and Kids

Everyone, regardless of age, is at risk of contracting the coronavirus COVID-19. But here’s the good news: It doesn’t appear to pose serious risks to babies and kids. “Most children appear to only have very mild signs and symptoms when they get infected with the virus,” Salazar says. Some children can even be asymptomatic, meaning they show no symptoms at all when they become infected, says Richard Watkins, MD, an infectious disease physician in Akron, Ohio, and a professor of medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University.

COVID-19 can cause serious complications in adults, like pneumonia and even death, but so far this hasn’t happened in children. “Infants, children and young adults seem to be strikingly spared,” Schaffner says. “The best thought about this is perhaps that they do get the infection but this virus doesn’t make them as sick. There’s some precedent for that in measles and chicken pox, where the older you are when you get the infection, the more likely you’ll have a severe course of illness.”

Symptoms of Coronavirus in Babies and Kids

There isn’t a lot of information right now about how the symptoms of coronavirus in babies and kids appear, Salazar says. Generally, while it’s possible for your child to have coronavirus without you even knowing it, “the symptoms are no different from adults,” Watkins says. Those symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath

If your child is exposed to COVID-19, they might not necessarily develop symptoms right away. The coronavirus incubation period is between two and 14 days, Watkins says. If you do suspect that your child has been infected, give your pediatrician a call before seeking care—that way if your little one has in fact contracted COVID-19, you won’t risk infecting others. The doctor can talk you through next steps and ways to limit exposure.

How to Treat Coronavirus in Babies and Kids

There is no specific treatment for coronavirus. “Experimental therapies are being investigated, but none are yet approved,” Salazar says. Instead, doctors are treating the symptoms. That includes having patients drink fluids, rest and take fever-reducing medications like acetaminophen (Tylenol), Watkins says. In more severe cases, a patient might require supplemental oxygen, he adds.

Like most respiratory viruses in children, a case of coronavirus could take between a week to 10 days to resolve, Salazar says. However, he adds, “it could be longer in children who are immunocompromised or have chronic medical conditions.”

If your child (or anyone in your family) is mildly ill with coronavirus, the CDC is recommending, you can likely keep them isolated at home. That means no school or daycare and no public space like playgrounds or public transportation. Don’t let them share food, drinking cups, utensils or bedding with others in your house. Parents and caregivers should wear a face mask and practice good hand hygiene. Monitor your child’s symptoms, and let your pediatrician know if they worsen or if your child experiences any trouble breathing.

Should You Travel with Babies and Kids?

Ultimately, the decision of whether to travel with your family is up to you. But know that government agencies are recommending certain travel limitations. The CDC just released new guidance on travel for all Americans, identifying certain areas of the world as hotbeds for coronavirus, including China, Iran, South Korea, Italy and Japan. It’s also urging people to avoid going on any cruise ships for the time being, and that at-risk individuals (which they currently do not define as children) skip unnecessary travel in general. “These recommendations may change as the pandemic evolves to other areas,” Salazar says.

Still, even though children aren’t considered at-risk, “I would caution against non-essential travel,” Watkins says. “I would also try to avoid large crowds.” If you are planning to travel, keep a close eye on the CDC’s website to double-check for updated travel advisories.

Coronavirus Precautions

We get it–trying to protect your kids against COVID-19 can be nerve-wracking and confusing. But there are certain things you can do to ward against coronavirus. The CDC currently recommends doing the following:

  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom, before eating and after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing
  • If soap and water aren’t available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol (but keep in mind that alcohol-based hand sanitizer isn’t recommended for children under the age of 2, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.)
  • “The best way to avoid contracting the virus is proper hand-washing at all times,” Salazar says. That’s why it’s important to teach your kids to wash their hands well—they should wash for at least 20 seconds, which is how long it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice. It’s also a good idea to tell your children to avoid touching their faces, including their eyes, nose or mouth so they don’t get germs in them, Watkins adds.

If you have any questions about coronavirus or aren’t sure if you should cancel travel plans due to the virus, talk to your child’s pediatrician. They should be able to offer up personalized advice for you and your family.

Published March 2020

Expert bios:

William Schaffner, MD, is an infectious disease specialist and professor of preventive medicine at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tennessee. He was a Fulbright scholar and graduated from Cornell University Medical College in 1962. Schaffner is past president of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases and has served on the Executive Board for the Infectious Diseases Society of America.

Juan Salazar, MD, MPH, FAAP, is a pediatric infectious disease specialist and physician in chief at Connecticut Children’s. He also serves as the chair of the department of pediatrics at the UConn School of Medicine. Salazar earned his medical degree from Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Bogotá, Colombia, in 1986.

Richard Watkins, MD, is an infectious disease physician in Akron, Ohio, and a professor of medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University. He received his medical degree from American University of the Caribbean School of Medicine.

Please note: The Bump and the materials and information it contains are not intended to, and do not constitute, medical or other health advice or diagnosis and should not be used as such. You should always consult with a qualified physician or health professional about your specific circumstances.

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