What parents need to know about long COVID in children
Pediatric infectious diseases specialist Dr. Carlos Oliveira explains long COVID symptoms and treatments.
Most people who get COVID-19 fully recover, but some go on to develop long COVID. We spoke to Dr. Carlos Oliveira, a specialist in pediatric infectious diseases at the Yale School of Medicine, to get answers to many parents' most common questions.
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'Long COVID with Dr. Carlos Oliveira'
Hi. I'm Dr. Carlos Oliveira. I'm a specialist in pediatric infectious diseases at the Yale School of Medicine.
What is long COVID?
Long COVID, otherwise known as post COVID condition, is when people experience symptoms that affect their physical, mental or social wellbeing for months after a COVID infection. We still don't know why some people develop long COVID, but it can affect a person's ability to do daily activities like schoolwork or sports.
Symptoms can look a little bit different between kids and adults. In children and adolescents, these symptoms may include an inability to tolerate strenuous activity, anxiety or tightness in the chest, difficulty breathing and difficulty thinking, also known as brain fog. The younger children can sometimes have hair loss or weight loss from a persistent loss of sense of smell or taste. What is clear is that a significant number of children who had COVID are currently suffering from ongoing symptoms.
How long can long COVID last for children?
While children tend to recover much faster than adults do, children can continue to feel symptoms for more than six months. Generally speaking, though, recovery time for children is determined by preexisting health and the severity of initial infections. In the vast majority of cases, children recover within a few months.
What signs should parents look out for?
With long COVID, many parents will find that their children can't keep up with their schoolwork or sports and are asking to skip these activities. Children who used to be actively engaged in sports may now be barely able to make it down the street before having to take a break.
Others may say that they constantly feel tired or have sore muscles or dizzy and a number of other bothersome symptoms. One of the most worrisome features of COVID is the potential for heart damage. Parents should be on the lookout for any cardiac symptoms, like feeling like the heart is beating more rapidly than usual, experiencing unusual shortness of breath after just minimal activity, or feeling like you're going to pass out or lose consciousness.
Parents should also be mindful of the influence of stress on children after COVID, which can sometimes be very difficult to pick up in the very young children. There are several things that can cause this stress. For example, children who haven't been able to taste for months feel stressed every time they eat because they just can't enjoy the food they used to love.
Other kids can get very frustrated when they can't do the tasks that were easy for them before COVID. It is also worth noting that many children have lost a family member or someone important to them in the last few years. A child's mental health can be greatly affected by this kind of loss.
What treatments are there for children with long COVID?
There's no one size fits all treatment for long COVID, but effective treatment starts with having the right diagnosis. So having an experienced pediatrician perform a thorough checkup is an important first step. Testing should be done based on the patient's symptoms and what the physical exam is showing. For example, a child who's having mostly chest pain should be sent to a cardiologist for an evaluation, while a child who is having trouble thinking clearly should have an evaluation that's more focused on the neurological aspects.
Treatment is generally aimed at improving the overall function and quality of life and really tends to be most effective when it addresses each symptom individually. It is also very important to note that for some children with long COVID, it can take a really long time for them to feel better. While mental health problems may not have been the cause of the long COVID symptoms, they may creep in and further delay recovery if it's not properly addressed.
How can parents protect their children against long COVID?
The best way you can protect yourself and your children is by doing everything you can to avoid getting infected in the first place. This includes getting your child vaccinated when it's available to them and following the recommended public health and social precautions where you live.
These all can help reduce the chances of getting infected and spreading COVID-19.
[Last reviewed: 16 June 2023]