Long COVID affects an estimated 10% of all people who have COVID-19, making it a common complication of the virus. There are therefore many concerns about what this could mean for children and their long-term health if they happen to catch the virus. But a new research letter has a surprising discovery: Long COVID isn't common in kids at all.
There's a lot to unpack with this research, and doctors stress that this doesn't mean that parents should be dismissive of COVID-19. However, they agree that it's heartening news. Here's what the data — and doctors — have to say about long COVID and kids.
What the study says
The study, which was published in JAMA Pediatrics, finds that long COVID is incredibly rare in children.
What are the key findings?
For the research letter, scientists analyzed longitudinal data from 1,026 children with a mean age of 10.5 years in Alberta, Canada, between August 2020 and March 2021. Parents were asked to report their children's symptoms every two weeks for 76 weeks.
Children were considered to have long COVID (known medically as post-COVID conditions or post-COVID condition) if:
They had a positive PCR test for a COVID-19 infection
They had new symptoms that started three months after a positive PCR test for the virus
And the symptoms lasted for at least eight weeks after they started
The symptoms were considered resolved if the children had a minimum of four weeks without symptoms.
The most common symptoms children had after having COVID-19 included a sore throat (68%), stuffy nose (62%), headache (52%), cough (42%), fever (42%) and fatigue (35%). But researchers found that these symptoms got better within 10 weeks after children had a positive PCR test for COVID-19.
Of all of the children who had a positive PCR test result for COVID-19, just one met the definition for long COVID used by the World Health Organization (WHO). According to the WHO, long COVID is defined as having symptoms of COVID-19 continue or develop three months after someone was initially infected with the virus. To be considered long COVID, the symptoms must last for at least two months with no other explanation, per the WHO.
It's important to point out that, of the 1,026 children studied, 572 did not have a positive PCR test result. The study doesn't say whether those children had symptoms of COVID-19 and didn't have a positive PCR test result, or didn't have symptoms at all. However, many parents will simply test their children with an at-home rapid test, or not at all, which could suggest that long COVID is even more rare than the researchers found.
The study's researchers concluded that the rate of long COVID was "strikingly low" in the children studied, noting that "most children experienced a resolution of symptoms within two weeks of infection."
What experts think
Doctors say this is great news for families. "It's obviously optimistic," Dr. William Schaffner, infectious disease specialist and professor of medicine at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life. The study period includes both the Delta and Omicron strains of COVID-19, he points out, suggesting that the findings translate well to the existing circulating strains of the virus.
"The symptoms these children had were also relatively minor compared to the spectrum of symptoms of long COVID in adults," Schaffner says. "Those can include brain fog, aches and pains, and a real inability to be able to function in society."
Infectious disease expert Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Life that the findings are "not surprising," adding that "it's been clear for some time that long COVID is not a very common occurrence in children."
Why it matters
Schaffner says that this doesn't mean that families shouldn't take precautions against COVID-19, and he stresses the importance of getting kids the new updated COVID-19 vaccine. "We know that vaccination not only prevents severe COVID, it contributes to a reduction in long COVID," he says. "I wouldn't allow this one study all by itself to discourage you from vaccinating your children."
Adalja also encourages parents to keep an eye on their children's symptoms after they recover from COVID-19, if they happen to get the virus. "If a child does experience symptoms three months after recovery, [you] can try and make an appointment with a long COVID clinic," he says. But Adalja says this isn't something most parents will need to worry about.
"Parents should be reassured that long COVID, while a societal problem, [is] not a very major pediatric problem," he says.