Health Library
COVID-19 (Coronavirus)

What is COVID-19 (Coronavirus)?

The coronavirus disease 2019 is an illness that’s caused by a virus that spreads from person to person. It is often called COVID-19. The virus that causes COVID-19 is a new kind of coronavirus that has spread all over the world.

What Are Coronaviruses?

Coronaviruses are a large group of viruses. They cause diseases in animals. They often move among camels, cats and bats. Then the viruses may evolve and begin to infect people. Coronaviruses didn’t just start with COVID-19. Human coronaviruses were first identified sometime in the 1960s. Usually coronaviruses present as a common cold but some strains can cause serious infections in humans.

Coronaviruses can spread when people:

  • Cough, sneeze or talk
  • Have close personal contact, such as hugging or shaking hands
  • Touch a surface or object with the virus on it, then touch their mouth, nose or eyes 

COVID-19 Signs and Symptoms

COVID-19 symptoms can range from mild (or no symptoms) to severe illness. The symptoms of COVID-19 are similar in children and adults and include:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath or trouble breathing
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headache
  • New loss of taste or smell
  • Sore throat
  • Congestion or runny nose
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea

Keep these things in mind as you watch for signs of the virus in your child.

  • The incubation period (time from when exposure to the virus happened to when symptoms develop) is two to 14 days. If a child is infected, the virus usually appears in five to six days.
  • COVID-19 symptoms are thought of as “nonspecific.” That means a symptom may not be caused by one specific illness. For instance, if your child has allergies, they may have a sore throat or lose their sense of smell. But those may also be signs of COVID-19. This makes it hard to know if your child has COVID-19 or something common like a cold.
  • The best way to deal with symptoms is to watch out for any that aren’t going away. If you see that the problem doesn’t seem to be getting any better, call your child’s doctor.
  • Know what symptoms to look for, when you should call and when you should take action. Talk about that ahead of time with your child’s doctor. This is always helpful, but it’s especially important if your child has underlying health issues such as asthma or allergies. These problems might make it harder to identify COVID-19.
  • Don’t worry about calling and then it turns out to be a false alarm. It’s better to call and be relieved if you find out it’s not COVID-19.
  • Most kids are not going to have major problems with COVID-19. They won't end up in the hospital or even be sick for very long.

Other Conditions Related to COVID-19

Multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C) is a newly recognized illness. For many children, it generally occurs a few weeks after an infection with SARS-CoV-2. Some children with MIS-C can have mild symptoms of COVID-19, but others will have had little or no prior symptoms.

Doctors believe that because COVID-19 is a new virus and a child’s immune system has not been exposed to it, the child has a delayed immune response to the coronavirus. The immune system goes into overdrive and causes inflammation. MIS-C appears several weeks later as a late effect after the virus is gone. Vaccination against COVID-19 is very effective at preventing MIS-C.

The inflammation causes blood vessels to become leaky. When the vessels become leaky, blood can't get to the organs. When oxygen can't get to the organs, the organs get damaged.

MIS-C has a range of symptoms that may include:

  • Fever lasting for three or more days
  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Rash or peeling skin
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Stomach pain

Call a doctor if your child has any of these symptoms. Call even if the child has not been infected with COVID-19.

Keep in mind that a small number of children who have COVID-19 have developed signs and symptoms of MIS-C and most children have recovered quickly. Over the past year, the number of children with MIS-C has also gone down. Doctors do not fully understand what causes MIS-C or why it has become less common.

Other rare but serious complications of COVID-19 can occur in children, such as myocarditis (inflammation of the heart), stroke or encephalitis (brain swelling), diabetes, and long-haul COVID-19. Learn more about post-COVID conditions.

COVID-19 Diagnosis and Treatment

At this time, COVID-19 is diagnosed using a viral test. This test checks samples from your child’s respiratory system. The most reliable test is the swab that’s inserted through your child’s nasal passage to the back of the throat.

Children who are diagnosed with COVID-19 usually get better with rest and fluids. If your child becomes very ill, they will go to a hospital for care that may include breathing help, IV fluids and other treatments.

It’s important to make sure a child with COVID-19 stays away from others who may have a harder time with the virus. These people include adults 65 years old and over or adults and children with underlying health problems.

How to Protect Your Child from COVID-19

  • Wash hands following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
    • Using soap and water, lather for 20 seconds (the time it takes to sing “Happy Birthday”) before rinsing.
    • Using hand sanitizer, be sure to rub it in well, and that it has at least 60% alcohol.
  • Avoid places where there's illness.
  • Stay away from people who have, or may have, COVID-19.
  • In crowded places where the virus may spread easily such as an airport, consider wearing a face mask. Your family may also consider wearing face masks whenever there are many COVID-19 cases in your community.
  • Show your child how to cough and sneeze into a tissue and then throw the dirty tissue into the trash. Show them how to cough or sneeze into their arm or elbow, not their hands.
  • Teach your child to avoid touching their eyes, nose and mouth.
  • Talk to your pediatrician about getting your child vaccinated against COVID-19.

COVID-19 Treatments

Most children will not require any antiviral therapy to recover fully from COVID-19. At this time, there are a few FDA-authorized or approved drugs to treat COVID-19. If your child is diagnosed with COVID-19, talk to your pediatrician about what they may be eligible for.

There is ongoing research on the best treatment and vaccine options for COVID-19 as the virus continues to change.

What Is the Long-Term Outlook for COVID-19?

Because COVID-19 is still such a new virus, there are questions about it that haven’t been answered. Researchers around the world are working to improve treatments and vaccines.

Last Updated 08/2023

Reviewed By Felicia Scaggs Huang, MD and Grant Schulert, MD, PhD