What parents need to know about COVID-19

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03/10/2020

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With the new Coronavirus or COVID-19 the topic of discussion across the U.S., your kids may start to ask questions about what it is or if they’re going to get it. Dr. John Christenson, a Pediatric Infectious Disease specialist with the Ryan White Center for Pediatric Infectious Diseases and Global Health gives information and tips on how to address questions and talk to your children about the virus.

By now you’ve probably heard of COVID-19 – a new infection caused by a virus in the Coronavirus family that was first identified in China. With the increase in media coverage, discussions at school with teachers and friends or overhearing parents discuss it at home, kids are becoming more aware of the virus. They may start to ask you questions like what is it or why is there so much stuff in the news about it? Dr. John Christenson, a Pediatric Infectious Disease specialist with the Ryan White Center for Pediatric Infectious Diseases and Global Health gives information and tips on how to talk with your children about the virus and what you and your children can do to help prevent it.

Preparing for potential daily disruptors

In the event that COVID-19 causes interruptions in your day to day activities (school, sporting events, daycares, etc.) it’s best to have the discussion as a family and what your plan may be. Disruptions like this can cause confusion and anxiety in kids as they’re missing out with their friends or activities that they enjoy. It's best to check with your child's school or daycare as well to see if there's the possibility of closure or e-learning due to the virus.

With spring break travel plans coming up soon, it’s important to stay updated on any travel restrictions that the U.S. has placed. If there’s no restriction, Dr. Christenson recommends using your best judgment on if you should cancel your travel plans.

If my child has a chronic condition, do I need to worry more?

Practicing proper handwashing and sanitizing potentially contaminated surfaces or toys are the necessary prevention methods for COVID-19. Consulting with your child’s specialist is the right thing to do if you have questions. If you have to leave a voicemail when calling and wait for a return call, please be patient and remember that others are likely calling too.

If my child is showing symptoms, what should I do?

If you suspect that you or your child may have COVID-19, the best thing to do is to call your primary care physician or local health department for steps on what to do next.

IU Health is also offering free virtual screenings that can help assess symptoms and the best clinical pathway you should take.

Should I go to the Emergency Department?

Dr. Christenson tells parents whose children were otherwise healthy before their symptoms appeared to “not take them to the Emergency Room. If they don’t have the virus, you’re potentially exposing them and you to other illnesses such as the flu. If your child does end up testing positive for the virus, then you’re exposing others.”

However, if your child is experiencing high fevers that are difficult to control with acetaminophen (Tylenol) and/or ibuprofen (Advil), you should call their primary care provider immediately. Any time your child is having difficulty breathing, vomiting, not keeping down fluids or has a temperature above 104 degrees, it is time to seek help and visit your nearest Emergency Room. The health care team will decide if your child needs to be tested for COVID-19 or other respiratory viruses.

How can I keep my child healthy?

When discussing COVID-19 to your kids, it’s best to tailor your message depending on their age group. For school-aged children and teenagers, it’s ok to describe to them what the virus is, how it’s spread and how they can protect themselves from getting it. Older kids may want to wear a mask. Using masks are ineffective in preventing yourself from getting COVID-19 and other similar respiratory viruses. You should only wear a mask if you have symptoms.

For younger preschool-aged kids, you don’t need to go into as much detail and should focus on how they can protect themselves – by washing their hands. Proper handwashing for at least 20 seconds will help lower the chances of you or your child getting not only COVID-19 but other illnesses as well such as the seasonal flu. If you need help knowing how long 20 seconds is, it’s about as long as singing the ABCs or humming 'Happy Birthday' from beginning to end twice.

For all age groups as well, it’s important to also teach them to cover their cough by coughing into their elbow as well as when they sneeze. With COVID-19 and other similar respiratory illnesses, respiratory droplets when you sneeze, or cough are how the virus spreads. Wiping down surfaces in-home and areas where people with respiratory illness have been will also prevent illness through contact with contaminated surfaces. Most household disinfectants can effectively kill the virus.

Have children been diagnosed with COVID-19?

While children have been diagnosed with COVID-19, it has been rare. In an analysis of 70,000 infected with this virus, less than 1 percent (less than 1 child out of 100 persons infected) were children under the age of 9 years of age. Infections in older children and adolescents were just a bit higher.

One of the things that have been noticed with this particular virus is that children who are otherwise healthy seem to fair pretty well if they contract the virus with mild or no symptoms. However, Dr. Christenson warns that even though they may have little to no symptoms, they can still pass on the virus to others – making effective hand washing important.

If the virus was first identified in China, does that mean products could be contaminated?

With COVID-19 first identified in China, your kids may also ask questions like will they get the virus if they eat Chinese food or if they use a certain product that says Made in China. Dr. Christenson says, “No. You won’t be at risk from eating Chinese food, from being around people who are originally from China or from using products that are made in China.” While disease outbreaks can be scary, it’s important to know and understand how it's spread and teaching your kids to do the same.

Staying updated on current information

To be able to answer questions your kids may have, it’s important to stay up to date on the latest information on the virus. Resources such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or your local and state health department are the best sources for accurate and updated information. As misinformation gets spread through social media channels such as Twitter or Facebook, it’s important to remind older adolescents and teens, particularly that they shouldn’t believe everything they see online is true. Dr. Christenson recommends discussing how to stay updated with accurate information and teaching them how to get that information from reliable sources is important.


With these tips, it’s important to remember that the only current way to prevent getting COVID-19 is proper handwashing with soap and warm water. If you’re unable to access soap and water, hand sanitizer works as a backup. Be sure to stay up to date from your local or state health department for news on COVID-19 in your area.

To learn more about COVID-19 and what to do if you are diagnosed, visit iuhealth.org.

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