Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19)

What is coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19)?

Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is a respiratory illness. It's caused by a new (novel) coronavirus called SARS-CoV-2. There are many types of coronaviruses. Coronaviruses are a very common cause of upper respiratory tract infections, or the common cold. They may sometimes cause lung infection (pneumonia). Symptoms can range from mild to severe respiratory illness. These viruses are also found in some animals.

Scientists continue to actively research COVID-19 and variant strands of the virus that causes it. Visit the CDC website for the latest information or call 800-CDC-INFO (800-232-4636).

What causes coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19)?

COVID-19 is caused by the virus SARS-CoV-2. Public health officials and scientists continue to study the virus and how it is spread. The virus is primarily spread through large droplets of fluid that a person coughs or sneezes into the air. It may also be spread if you touch a surface with virus on it, such as a handle or object, and then touch your eyes, nose, or mouth.

Who is at risk for coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19)?

You are at risk for infection if you:

  • Recently traveled to or live in an area with widespread transmission of COVID-19
  • Had close contact (more than 15 minutes at a distance of less than 6 feet) with a person who was diagnosed with or who may have COVID-19

Are children less prone to infection with COVID-19?

We still do not know the true number of children at any given time who are infected with COVID-19, though evidence does so far suggest children under age 5 are less likely to experience severe infection.

However, we do not yet understand why one child might become infected and not another, or why some children experience severe infection. For this reason, we still recommend taking all necessary precautions to keep your children safe, including mask use, excellent hand hygiene, physical distancing from those not in your household, and avoiding crowded, poorly ventilated spaces. 

What do we know about the role of children in disease transmission?

We understand that younger children who carry SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, may be asymptomatic or mildly asymptomatic. They can transmit the virus to others, but seem to do so less often than adults.

Teenagers, on the other hand, act more like adults in terms of their ability to transmit the virus. Because children of all ages contribute to disease transmission on some level, it is critical that children who are either exposed to or test positive for the virus follow isolation protocols. (Read more about what to do if your child tests positive for COVID-19.)

What are the symptoms of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19)?

Some people have no symptoms or mild symptoms. Symptoms can also vary from person to person. Symptoms may appear 2 to 14 days after contact with the virus.

Symptoms concerning for COVID-19 in children include:

  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Loss of taste or smell

Additional non-specific symptoms may be due to COVID-19, but may also be due to another infection. These symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Sore throat
  • Runny nose
  • Headache or body aches
  • Chills
  • Fatigue
  • Gastrointestinal symptoms such as vomiting or diarrhea

It is important to review your child's symptoms with their doctor to determine if they should be tested for COVID-19.

How is coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will look at the risk of COVID-19 in your community and will ask about your symptoms. They will also ask about your recent travel and contact with sick people. If your healthcare provider thinks you may have the virus, they will recommend testing.

COVID-19 is diagnosed through a nose-throat swab. A cotton-tipped swab is wiped inside your nose to the back of your throat. This test looks for evidence of the virus to tell you if you have a current COVID-19 infection.

If your healthcare provider thinks or confirms that you have COVID-19, they may also recommend imaging tests, such as a chest X-ray or CT scan.

Follow all instructions from your healthcare provider.

How is COVID-19 different from the flu?

Both COVID-19 and influenza are respiratory viruses. Because of this, they can cause similar symptoms of cough, difficulty breathing, shortness of breath, fever and body aches. Call your child’s pediatrician to discuss any symptoms. They may recommend testing to determine which virus your child has.

Can COVID-19 be prevented?

Vaccines that protect against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, are being developed at unprecedented speed. In early December 2020, the first COVID-19 vaccines were approved for use in the United States using the FDA’s Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) process. In August 2021, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine received full FDA approval for use in people ages 16 and up. Under the previous emergency use authorization, all other COVID-19 vaccines available in the U.S. are still approved for use in people ages 18 and up, with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine also approved for use in people ages 12 to 15.

Please refer to CHOP’s Vaccine Education Center for the latest information about these vaccines, and learn more about CHOP's plans to vaccinate eligible individuals.

How is coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) treated?

Select medications are recommended for children admitted to intensive care units with severe cases of COVID-19.

The most proven treatments right now are those to help your body while it fights the virus. This is known as supportive care. Supportive care may include:

  • Getting rest. This helps your body fight the illness.
  • Staying hydrated. Drinking liquids is the best way to prevent dehydration. Try to drink 6 to 8 glasses of liquids every day, or as advised by your provider. Also check with your provider about which fluids are best for you. Don't drink fluids that contain caffeine or alcohol.
  • Taking over-the-counter (OTC) pain medicine. These are used to help ease pain and reduce fever. Follow your healthcare provider's instructions for which OTC medicine to use.

For severe illness, you may need to stay in the hospital. Care during severe illness may include: 

  • IV (intravenous) fluids. These are given through a vein to help keep your body hydrated.
  • Oxygen. Supplemental oxygen or ventilation with a breathing machine (ventilator) may be given. This is done so you get enough oxygen in your body.
  • Prone positioning. Depending on how sick you are during your hospital stay, your healthcare team may turn you regularly onto your stomach. This is called prone positioning. It's done to help increase the amount of oxygen you get to your lungs. Follow your healthcare team's instructions on position changes while you're in the hospital and discharge advice on the best positions to help your breathing once you go home.

People who have had COVID-19 and are fully recovered may be asked by their healthcare team to consider donating plasma. This is called COVID-19 convalescent plasma donation. Plasma from people fully recovered from COVID-19 may contain antibodies to help fight COVID-19 in people who are currently seriously ill with the disease. It's not fully known if the donated plasma will work well as a treatment, but the FDA is looking at it and has asked the American Red Cross to help with plasma donation and collection. Talk with your provider to learn more about convalescent plasma donation and whether you qualify to donate.

Managing coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) at home

If you have been diagnosed with COVID-19:

  • Stay home. Don’t leave your home unless you need to get medical care. Don't go to work, school, or public areas. Don't use public transportation or taxis.
  • Follow all instructions from your healthcare provider. Call your provider’s office before going. They can prepare for your arrival and give you instructions. This will help prevent the virus from spreading.
  • Limit contact with other people in your home.
  • Wear a face mask. This is to protect other people from your germs. If you are not able to wear a mask, your caregivers should when you are in the same room with them. Wear the mask so that it covers both your nose and mouth.
  • Don’t share household items or food.
  • Cover your face with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw the tissue away. Then wash your hands.
  • Wash your hands often.

If you are caring for a child or other member of your household with COVID-19:

  • Follow all instructions from healthcare staff.
  • Wash your hands often.
  • Wear protective clothing as advised.
  • Make sure the sick person wears a mask. If they can't wear a mask, don't stay in the same room with the person. If you must be in the room, wear a face mask. Wear the mask so that it covers both your nose and mouth.
  • Keep track of the sick person’s symptoms.
  • Clean surfaces, fabrics and laundry thoroughly.
  • Keep other people and pets away from the sick person.

What are possible complications of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19)?

In many cases, this virus can cause infection (pneumonia) in both lungs. In some cases, this can cause death, especially in older adults and people who have serious health conditions such as heart or lung disease or diabetes.

As experts learn more about COVID-19, other complications are being reported that may be linked to COVID-19. Rarely, some children have developed severe complications called multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C). MIS-C seems to be similar to Kawaski disease, a rare condition causing inflammation of blood vessels and body organs.

It's not yet known if MIS-C happens only in children, or if adults are also at risk. Experts continue to study MIS-C. The CDC advises healthcare providers to report to local health departments any person under age 21 years old who is ill enough to be in the hospital and has all of the following:

  • A fever over 100.4°F for more than 24 hours and a positive SARS-CoV-2 test or exposure to the virus in the last 4 weeks
  • Lab tests showing inflammation in at least two organs such as the heart, lungs or kidneys
  • No other diagnoses besides COVID-19 explain the child's symptoms When should I call my healthcare provider?

Call your healthcare provider:

  • If you’ve recently traveled or have been in an area with COVID-19 and have symptoms
  • If you have been diagnosed with COVID-19 and your symptoms are worse

Reviewed by Julia Shaklee Sammons, MD, MSCE , Susan E. Coffin, MD, MPH, Lori Handy, MD, MSCE

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Coronavirus Helpline

Division of Infectious Diseases

The Division of Infectious Diseases offers consultation and diagnosis in the management of children with any type of infectious disease.

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