When children have long Covid
Experts estimate that long Covid — a cluster of lingering symptoms including fatigue, headaches, brain fog, racing heart and stomach issues — may affect about one in five adults. Studies suggest that long Covid is rarer in children, but they can develop it too.
My colleague Pam Belluck reported last August on children with long Covid, and the constellation of physical, cognitive and mental health symptoms they can experience.
At the time, the US had only logged a few million cases of the coronavirus in people under 21. Today, the number has risen to more than 13 million, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics — a number that is almost certainly an undercount. A separate CDC study estimated that by February about 75 percent of US children under 18 had blood antibodies to the coronavirus, suggesting they had been infected.
I went back to Pam to understand what has changed since she wrote the piece about kids with long Covid last summer. She stressed there are still more questions than answers, but gave me some optimistic news: “We’re getting a sense it’s significantly less common in kids. When I wrote my story, there was one estimate that said 11 to 15 percent of children could be at risk. A recent study I’ve seen put it at 1.5 percent having symptoms after eight weeks.”
In other words, children, especially those under 12, are probably at far less risk than adults. Pam added that the jury’s still out on whether vaccines lower the risk of long Covid, but there’s growing evidence that they do. When kids do develop long Covid, Pam said, experts now suggest that some can recover faster than adults.
It’s great kids may be at less risk for long Covid, but what should parents do if kids have troubling symptoms that last for months?
Kids are going through a lot now, whether or not they have been infected with the coronavirus. Some health issues like anxiety, fatigue and headaches could have multiple causes. So, it’s really important not to dismiss those symptoms but to remember that some could be caused or exacerbated by other stressors too like school closures, remote learning, lockdowns, not being with friends, having family members get sick or die.
Do we know anything more about which kids develop long Covid and which don’t?
We know that if adults get very sick from the initial phase of a coronavirus infection — sick enough to need hospitalization — they’re likelier to have long-term symptoms. This is probably true for kids as well. But even people who had mild initial infections can develop long Covid, and since they make up the majority of people who are infected, they also make up the majority of people with long Covid. Studies in adults are suggesting that there may be factors that make people more likely to develop long Covid, including having previous medical issues like diabetes or autoimmune conditions.
So what do you do if your child’s symptoms persist after an infection?
Go to a doctor you trust, like your pediatrician or primary care doctor. Ask them to fully assess what could be causing the symptoms. Some symptoms, like headaches or shortness of breath, may be treated with medication. Fatigue is probably the most common feature of long Covid and that’s a very tricky thing to address. You may want to seek help at a post-Covid clinic for children — there are some that have an interdisciplinary network of specialists and can address issues like fatigue with programs that include physical therapy.
Some parents say there are long waits to see specialists, and that other doctors dismiss their concerns. What do you tell them?
Access is definitely a problem. I think doctors dismissing or gaslighting this is a little less common than it was, though obviously that varies. Show your doctors the studies we’ve written about. Or find a different pediatrician. The important thing is to try to get the symptoms addressed, even if a doctor doesn’t think they are caused by long Covid. We’re going to learn more about this condition and there will hopefully be more answers available, but in the interim, if a kid is suffering, focus on getting them help for their symptoms.
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Your stories about long Covid in kids
Last week, we asked you to tell us about long Covid symptoms in your children. You told us about lively, active kids of all ages, who months after their initial infection still have headaches, stomach problems, terrible fatigue and other issues. Thank you for sharing your stories with us.
“My 15-year-old tested positive in January. She was vaccinated and boosted. Today, she has nausea, diarrhea, joint and muscle pain, shortness of breath, headaches, anxiety, hair loss and more. She loves the arts, singing, acting and playing her instruments, but she is struggling to get through the school year. Physical therapy seems to be helping. We saw a gastroenterologist last week. She started new meds, and a new diet. We’re praying for a return to a somewhat normal life for her.” — Joy Corbitt, Davidson, NC
“My son, now 13, first had Covid in April 2020. He was in bed for 49 days. He resumed normal activities to an extent, until he was reinfected in January and April 2022. He dropped out of school a few months ago. Ryan was healthy, social, athletic and a good student. Now he sleeps 10-12 hours every night, has difficulty concentrating, and gets sick constantly. He’s given up his passion for him, soccer. So many of our friends have moved on to live life like they did in 2019, but that’s impossible for us.” — Allison Newman, New York City
“My 15-year-old contracted Covid in September 2020. She’s a shell of the person she was. Ironically, she got it at her gym — she was a competitive gymnast and I worried if I did not send her back, she’d lose the opportunity to participate. How wrong I was. Ella she’s had a headache 24/7 since she was getting Covid and she did a weeklong stay at an inpatient specialty clinic being pumped full of IV drugs. Nothing could break the headache. I have no idea what her future holds. — Holly Orcutt, St. Charles, Ill.
“My child was 5 and seemed to bounce right back. But we noticed we’d take him to go play at the park, and he’d come back after a few minutes and say his chest hurt really badly. It’s been 18 months. He has chest pain, is tired after Boy Scouts and not able to play like he always did. He sometimes breaks out in hives. Nobody seems to know what this is or if it will go away. A large part of his childhood got taken away from him.” — Alyssa, Houston
“I’m 18 years old, but got Covid just after my 17th birthday. I could not taste a thing. I had a headache and a slight cough but no serious symptoms. My real problem is my nose. It’s been a year and a half now, and the signature ‘altered taste’ still lingers. Things like popcorn and milk chocolate still repel me. It’s very depressing. I try to smell perfumes but they all smell the same. I’m worried, if my sense of taste and smell have been altered for this long, will it stay the same forever?” — Katherine Beebe, San Antonio, Texas
What else we’re following
A new study found that dogs are as accurate, or even better, than lab tests at detecting Covid, Science News reports.
An indoor mask mandate was reinstated in Oakland and the rest of Alameda County, Calif., as hospitalizations grow.
A top WHO official warned that Covid may be worsening in North Korea, which has poor health care and no vaccines, the Washington Post reports.
What you’re doing
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