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Children and COVID-19

11-minute read

If you develop symptoms such as severe shortness of breath or chest pain, call triple zero (000) immediately. Tell the call handler and the paramedics on arrival if you have COVID-19.

How serious is COVID-19 in children?

COVID-19 is usually milder in children than in adults — only very rarely does it cause severe illness. Around 98% of children and adolescents either get mild infection or have no symptoms at all.

Of those who do get symptoms, the illness is usually very similar to other respiratory viral illnesses — the most common symptoms are fever and cough. Children can also have symptoms like a runny nose and tiredness. Some children may have gastrointestinal symptoms like abdominal pain, diarrhea or vomiting.

Some children may require hospitalisation and a smaller number may need to have intensive care. Studies have shown that children and adolescents with underlying medical conditions have a greater risk of developing severe disease and complications from COVID-19.

The conditions in children that increase the risk of being hospitalised with COVID-19 include —but are not limited to:

Children very rarely die from COVID-19. Studies in the United Kingdom suggest that 2 per every 1 million children infected with the virus died of COVID-19. This is lower than the rate of childhood deaths from influenza.

Studies show that although children can get ‘long COVID’ — that is, the persistence of COVID-19 symptoms, such as fatigue and breathlessness, for over 3 months — it’s uncommon. It appears to occur less commonly in children than in adults. Some of the symptoms, such as body aches, difficulty concentrating and changes to mood, have been reported in children and teenagers who haven’t had COVID-19 — this may be a consequence of living in the pandemic and in lockdown.

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the COVID-19 Symptom Checker to find out if you need medical help.

What should I do if my child gets COVID-19?

Children with COVID-19 will often have similar symptoms to other viral infections — such as fever, runny nose, sore throat, cough, vomiting, diarrhoea and lethargy.

A small number may develop other symptoms such as tummy or chest pain, headache, body aches, breathing difficulties or loss of taste or smell. Up to half of the children who get COVID-19 may have no symptoms at all.

There is a small risk of severe disease from COVID-19 in children, but this is very rare.

If their symptoms are mild, most children who get COVID-19 can be cared for at home.

You should seek medical care for your child if they are:

  • less than 3 months old
  • your child's symptoms seem to be worsening
  • your child has a chronic illness and your GP has told you to seek help if your child gets a respiratory or gastrointestinal illness
  • you are worried about your child as a parent
  • your child's mental health is suffering because of isolation
  • your child is immunocompromised
  • your child has a significant physical or intellectual disability
  • you have any concerns about caring for your child

Parents and carers should use the same general guidelines that they would for other viral infections:

  • children should be dressed in comfortable clothing, to prevent any sweating or shivering
  • make sure they drink lots of fluids
  • encourage them to rest and not overdo it

Children can also take paracetamol or ibuprofen if they’re uncomfortable because of the pain or fever (ibuprofen should not be used for children under 3 months of age).

Watch your child for signs that their illness is getting worse. Warning signs to look out for include:

  • persistent fever that is not responding to treatment
  • difficulty breathing or chest pain
  • severe abdominal pain, vomiting and/or diarrhoea
  • if they’re drinking less or passing less than half the amount of urine they usually would
  • if they’re excessively sleepy or irritable

In case of these or other serious concerns, parents and carers should seek urgent advice from their care team. In an emergency, they should request ambulance assistance and tell the operator the child has COVID-19.

Is there an age limit in children for a rapid antigen test?

Children can be tested with a rapid antigen test, however some kits cannot be used on young children and babies. The TGA don’t specify any age limits but recommend checking the instructions provided if using the test on a child.

Some states do not recommend rapid antigen tests on children under the age of 2 years but also recommend checking the product age recommendations. Some testing kits have no age restrictions, but many are for use over the age of 2 years.

Rapid antigen tests on children should always be done or supervised by an adult. It is important to carefully follow any instructions provided with the test kit.

For a list of tests that the TGA has approved and instructions on how to use them, go to tga.gov.au. This list is updated regularly.

If you can’t obtain a rapid antigen test that is suitable for your child, or you don’t feel confident using a RAT then get a PCR test.

If the rapid antigen test is negative but your child still has symptoms or your child is still unwell, arrange a PCR test.

If the PCR test is negative and your child doesn’t have symptoms or feel unwell, just monitor for symptoms.

If you have concerns about your child, contact your health provider. You can also use the Healthdirect Symptom Checker for advice.

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the COVID-19 Symptom Checker to find out if you need medical help.

Can children get a COVID-19 vaccine?

It’s recommended that children 5 years and older get a COVID-19 vaccine to protect them from getting severe sickness from COVID-19, reduce the spread of virus between themselves and to adults, prevent other complications such as ‘long COVID’ and to reduce disruptions to schooling and other learning.

Australia’s health product regulator, the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), has given the following 2 approvals:

  • Pfizer’s Comirnaty vaccine is provisionally approved for use in people aged 5 years and over
  • Moderna’s Spikevax vaccine is provisionally approved for use in people aged 6 years and over

The AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine (Vaxzevria) and the Novavax COVID-19 vaccine (Nuvaxovid) are not registered for use in children under 18 years of age.

If your child is taking other medication, in most cases they can also receive a COVID-19 vaccine, but should discuss the best timing of vaccination with their treating doctor.

Parents and carers can use the Vaccine Clinic Finder to book in their child’s vaccination.

BOOK YOUR VACCINATION — Use the COVID-19 Vaccine Clinic Finder to book your COVID vaccination or booster.

The Department of Health have provided information for parents and guardians on the COVID-19 vaccine and consent for 5 to 11 year olds.

Does my child need a third dose?

The Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) has recommended a third dose of a COVID-19 vaccine as part of the primary vaccination course in people who are severely immunocompromised.

This recommendation applies to all individuals aged 5 years and over with certain conditions or on therapies leading to severe immunocompromise.

This is to address the risk of suboptimal or non-response to the standard 2-dose schedule. The third dose is intended to maximise the level of immune response to as close as possible to the general population.

The recommended interval for the third primary dose is 2 to 6 months after the second dose of vaccine.

Third doses are NOT the same as booster shots.

Does my child need a booster?

ATAGI recommends people aged 16 and 17 years receive a booster dose of the Pfizer vaccine. They can have the booster from 3 months after they received their last primary dose of a TGA-approved or recognised vaccine. This includes severely immunocompromised 16 and 17-year-olds who received 3 primary doses.

Those 16 and 17-year-olds who’ve recently had COVID-19 and are now eligible for a booster should still receive it. They can have their booster immediately after recovering from acute illness, or it can be deferred for up to 4 months.

The TGA has not approved the Pfizer vaccine for use as a booster in people aged under 16 years old. Pfizer is also the only vaccine approved as a booster for 16-17-year-olds.

Can children get a COVID-19 vaccination if they have already had COVID-19?

COVID-19 vaccination is still strongly recommended in children who have already had COVID-19 infection.

It is recommended to defer COVID-19 vaccinations for 3 months after a confirmed COVID-19 infection. The interval between infection and vaccination enhances the protection from vaccination by further boosting the immune response, This immune response is further enhanced by vaccination.

All recommended doses should still be received, and no doses should be omitted from the schedule.

As with all vaccines, COVID-19 vaccination should be deferred in people who are acutely unwell.

You should advise your doctor or immunisation provider if your child has had COVID-19 in the past.

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If you are looking after someone in your home there are things you can do to keep yourself, your household and the person with COVID-19 safe. Learn more here.

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People with a mild case of COVID-19 can treat their symptoms in a similar way to how they treat a seasonal flu. Here's how to relieve symptoms at home.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: May 2022


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