You just found out your child was exposed to COVID-19 at school, at daycare, on the bus or during another group activity. Receiving this kind of news can be worrying. But what’s next?

First of all, keep in mind that being in close contact with someone who has COVID-19 doesn’t necessarily mean your child will get sick. Plus, if they do get COVID-19, it’s unlikely they’ll get a serious case – and, it’s even less likely if your child’s been vaccinated.

Even so, after you find out your child’s been exposed to COVID-19, it’s important to know what to do, how to prevent COVID-19 spread and steps to take if your child gets sick.

What to do if you receive a COVID-19 close contact notification

Based on the current guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it’s no longer necessary for your child to stay home if they’ve been exposed to COVID-19, unless they develop symptoms. But there still things you should do to keep your child and others safe.

1. Have your child wear a mask indoors when around others

While it’s okay for kids without symptoms to continue normal activities, they should wear a mask for 10 days when around others in indoor places – this includes inside your home and in public spaces. The exception is kiddos under 2 years old who should never wear masks.

2. Watch out for common symptoms of COVID-19 in children

If your child has one or more symptoms of COVID-19, they shouldn’t attend childcare, school or other activities. Symptoms typically occur 2-14 days after exposure and may include:

  • Fever of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or higher
  • New cough or a cough that gets worse
  • New loss of taste or smell
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sore throat
  • Congestion or runny nose
  • Nausea, vomiting or diarrhea
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Fatigue (constant tiredness)
  • Very bad headache
  • Chills

How is COVID-19 different in children than adults?

COVID-19 symptoms in children are similar to the symptoms in adults. The most significant difference is that diarrhea, vomiting and nausea are more common in children.

3. Get your child tested

If your child has one or more symptoms, test them for COVID-19 right away. If your child doesn’t have symptoms, they should have a COVID-19 test 3-5 days (Day 5 is best) after being exposed to make sure that they don’t have COVID-19 without symptoms. But even if your child’s test is negative, they should still continue to wear a mask until it’s been 10 days since their exposure.

Need a COVID-19 test for your child?

What to do if your child tests positive for COVID-19

Here are the steps to take if your child gets sick with COVID-19:

1. Notify your child’s school and others who may have been exposed

If your child tests positive, let people know as soon as possible to help control the spread of COVID-19. School and organizations should manage communication to others about close contacts. But you’ll want to let friends and family know, too. Here’s who to contact:

  • The school heath office or your child’s daycare
  • Leaders of clubs or activities outside of school
  • Friends and family that you’ve seen within the past couple of weeks

2. Help your child isolate

If your child has COVID-19, they’ll need to be in isolation and away from others as much as possible. This means your child should:

  • Sleep in a bedroom by themselves – if that’s not possible, try to put as much distance between the beds as possible
  • Use a different bathroom than everyone else – if that’s not an option, try to clean the bathroom with disinfectant throughout the day
  • Eat their food away from others
  • Not share personal items like cups and towels
  • Wear a mask when anyone is in the room with them (for safety reasons, they shouldn’t wear a mask when they’re alone or if they’re under the age of two)
  • Wash their hands frequently, for at least 20 seconds each time

3. Create a plan to keep others in your home safe

A positive COVID-19 case doesn’t just affect one member of the family. When a child’s in isolation, it affects everyone in your house. Here’s what you and your family can do to prevent others from getting sick:

  • Wear a mask when you’re in the same area as your sick child
  • Make sure that there’s good airflow in shared spaces
  • Wash your hands frequently, for at least 20 seconds each time
  • Don’t have any visitors
  • At least once a day, use a household cleaner to wipe down surfaces that get touched a lot, including light switches, counters, doorknobs and toys
  • Wash your child’s laundry separately and on the highest setting, wearing gloves and a mask when handling the dirty laundry
  • Get tested 3-5 days after the start of quarantine, or earlier if you start to experience any COVID-19 symptoms

Who should be in close contact with your child?

If your child is sick, it’s natural that the family wants to be there for them. But that may not be the best choice, especially if there are unvaccinated people in your family.

In general, it’s best to leave the caregiving to a single person to limit the risks to the family. If possible, choose someone who’s vaccinated and had their COVID-19 booster shot – they have additional protection against the coronavirus.

4. Provide care to your child while they are sick

If your child gets COVID-19, they’ll probably have the symptoms you’d see with a cold or flu. So the ways you’d care for your child in those situations tend to apply here, too. Here’s how to care for a child with COVID-19:

  • Dress your child comfortably. Make sure your child is dressed in comfortable clothing and that they’re not too cold or too hot.
  • Encourage your child to drink fluids. It’s very important your child gets enough fluids, especially when they’re running a fever. If your child is urinating infrequently or seems excessively sleepy or irritable, they may be dehydrated, and you should contact your child’s doctor.
  • Let them rest. Sleep supports the immune system and can help your child’s body fight off the coronavirus and recover sooner. Chances are your child won’t need much convincing to take a snooze. But if they’re resisting a nap, turn on some calming music or suggest they do something relaxing, like reading.
  • Be positive and supportive. Children are great at picking up on people’s emotions. Isolation is hard on everyone, especially children. Being left out and avoided can make them sad. Remind your child there’s a lot of people who love them and that the reason why people are wearing masks and staying away is to keep everyone safe – so you can get back to doing fun things together, sooner.
  • Treat bothersome symptoms if necessary. If your child’s symptoms are causing discomfort, the following at-home treatments for COVID-19 may help.

What are at-home treatments for children with COVID-19?

4 years and older Ages 1 to 4 years 4 to 11 months Under 4 months
Fever or sore throat Acetaminophen

Honey

Acetaminophen

Honey

Acetaminophen Talk to your baby’s doctor
Bothersome cough Cough and cold medications

Honey

Honey (should not be given to children under age 1) Talk to your baby’s doctor Talk to your baby’s doctor
Nasal congestion Acetaminophen Acetaminophen Acetaminophen Bulb syringe and nasal spray

What should I do if I have questions about caring for my child?

If you have any questions about caring for your child, you can:

How long does COVID-19 last in kids?

As with adults, COVID-19 recovery time varies. Your child should be able to return to school, daycare or other group activities when:

  • It’s been at least five days since their first COVID-19 symptoms, and
  • They’ve had a normal temperature for 24 hours without the help of fever-reducing medications, and
  • Their other COVID-19 symptoms are improving or are gone. The one exception is the loss of smell or taste since that can take longer to come back.

Once a child leaves isolation, they should continue to wear a mask for five more days when they’re around others. The only exception is children under age 2 years old, who should never wear masks.

If you have access to at-home COVID-19 antigen tests, you can choose to use testing to determine when your child can stop masking. It’s recommended that you wait until Day 6, which is the day after their five-day isolation has ended, to begin testing. Then, repeat testing every 48 hours. Once your child has two negative tests in a row, they can stop masking.

If you choose not to use testing, then your child should wear a mask for the full five days after they leave isolation.

5. Be on the lookout for COVID-19 severe complications in children

Severe COVID-19 and complications are rare in children. But when they happen, they can be life threatening. If your child has a weakened immune system or serious medical conditions, talk to your doctor about COVID-19 treatments that can prevent mild or moderate cases from becoming severe.

Of particular concern is multisystem inflammatory syndrome (MIS-C), a complication of COVID-19 that causes inflammation throughout a child’s body. While serious, quickly getting medical attention for MIS-C can help ensure your child makes a full recovery. Here’s what to watch for and what you should do.

Call 911 or go to an emergency room if your child has these symptoms:

  • Can’t breathe well enough to talk or walk
  • Skin that looks blue or gray
  • A bad stomach ache
  • Inability to wake up or stay awake
  • Shortness of breath or breathing problems
  • Confusion or dizziness
  • Pain or pressure in the chest

6. After they recover, watch your child for any long-term effects of COVID-19

After recovering from COVID-19, children can experience long-haul COVID-19 symptoms that last for weeks or months. These symptoms include the loss of taste and smell, muscle weakness, stomach pain, fatigue and headaches. Your child can get long COVID even if they had a mild case or no COVID-19 symptoms at all.

If your child recovers from their initial infection but they develop new health problems that don’t seem to go away, make a primary care appointment to see if your child needs treatment for post-COVID syndrome.

Tips to prevent COVID-19 in children

COVID-19 cases in children are on the rise. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), about 1 in 5 COVID cases have been in children. However, it’s extremely rare for kids to have serious cases that require hospitalization.

Still, it’s important to prevent COVID-19 in children, not only for their own health but for the safety of others as well. Children who have COVID-19 can spread the coronavirus to others with weaker immune systems, including elderly relatives and people who are immunocompromised.

Here are things you can do to control the spread of COVID-19:

  • Get your family vaccinated. Getting a COVID-19 vaccine and the appropriate COVID-19 boosters continues to be best way to prevent COVID-19. The good news is that COVID-19 vaccines are now available for children 6 months old and older.
  • Encourage your child to wear a mask, even if it’s not required. Your child’s school may or may not require masks. But masking indoors continues to be recommended by the CDC in areas with high rates of COVID-19 community transmission – which is still much of the United States.
  • Model safe COVID-19 behaviors. You can’t control how children will behave at school when around their peers. So when you’re out in public with your kids, model safe behaviors such as masking and washing hands. Also explain how these behaviors can help protect other people from getting sick – it’s a gift your child can give to people who aren’t as healthy.

We’re your partner in COVID-19 care for children

Finding out your child has been exposed to or tested positive for COVID-19 can be overwhelming. Fortunately, most children who get COVID-19 have mild cases and recover quickly.

But remember, even if your child isn’t bothered by symptoms and seems healthy, they can still spread COVID-19 to others. So while you’re taking care of your child, make sure to take care of yourself, too.

Have questions about caring for a child with COVID-19?