In Brief

Not all children are spared from coronavirus

A child in a hospital bed.
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

As cases of the new coronavirus disease, COVID-19, surge around the world, one curious observation has emerged: Children seem to be largely unharmed by the disease. But a new study suggests that not all children are spared — a small percentage of kids develop serious illness from COVID-19.

The study, published online March 16 in the journal Pediatrics, is the largest to date to examine the severity of COVID-19 in children. The researchers analyzed information from more than 2,000 confirmed and suspected cases of COVID-19 in children that were reported to the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention between Jan. 16 and Feb. 8.

As with previous reports, the new study found that the majority of cases — more than 90% — were mild or moderate. Among these cases, children experienced symptoms such as fever, cough, sore throat, runny nose, sneezing and sometimes pneumonia.

But around 6% of children developed severe or critical illness, with symptoms such as shortness of breath and hypoxia, or low levels of oxygen in body tissues. (For comparison, a separate study that analyzed 44,672 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in adults in China found that around 18.5% were severe or critical.) 

In rare cases, children developed acute respiratory distress syndrome, a life-threatening condition that prevents oxygen from getting to the lungs and in turn, into the bloodstream. One 14-year-old boy with confirmed COVID-19 died from the disease, according to The New York Times.

"What this [study] tells us is that hospitals should prepare for some pediatric patients because we can't rule out children altogether," Dr. Srinivas Murthy, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of British Columbia, who was not involved with the study, told the Times.

In this study, infants and very young children were particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. Of the 125 children who developed severe illness, more than 60% were age 5 or younger, the Times reported.

One limitation of the study was that not all of the reported children's cases were confirmed to have COVID-19. About 34% were confirmed, while the rest were suspected to have COVID-19 based on their symptoms, results of chest X-rays and blood tests, and whether the child had contact with someone with coronavirus.

A separate study of COVID-19 cases in the United States found that, among about 500 patients known to have been hospitalized, less than 1% were ages 19 or younger. In contrast, close to 40% were ages 20 to 54, while 52% were ages 55 and older. This finding indicates that severe illness "can occur in adults of any age with COVID-19," the authors, from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, wrote in the study, published March 18 in the journal Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

Originally published on Live Science.

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Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.