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Experts say the Delta variant may be causing long-haul COVID-19 to become more common. Westend61/Getty Images
  • In a recent study, researchers say 1 in 7 children who tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, still had symptoms 15 weeks after their diagnosis.
  • Experts say children rarely become seriously ill from the disease, but the Delta variant may be making long-haul COVID-19 more common.
  • They say the situation makes it even more important for parents and teachers to be aware of long-haul COVID-19 in children.

A new pre-print study in England shows that 1 in 7 children testing positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, may have symptoms linked to the virus months afterward, a condition also known as long-haul COVID-19, or “long COVID.”

Although children rarely become severely ill with COVID-19, the study shows the symptoms they do have can linger as long as they do in adults who are also experiencing long COVID.

The study was led by researchers at University College London and Public Health England. It found that 11- to-17-year-olds who tested positive were twice as likely to report three or more symptoms 15 weeks later than those who tested negative.

Researchers surveyed 3,065 children who tested positive between January and March 2021. A control group was made up of 3,739 children in the same age range, who tested negative during the same time.

Among those testing positive, 14 percent had three or more symptoms such as headaches or unusual tiredness 15 weeks later, compared to 7 percent among the control group.

“Our knowledge of the effects of COVID-19 on pediatric populations has been evolving, and data collection has been slower compared to adults, because of the seemingly lower impact,” Dr. Kristen Nichols, a pediatric infectious disease specialist and management consultant at Wolters Kluwer, told Healthline.

“An additional consideration is this was an observational study, which means that there are a lot of factors that couldn’t be controlled for in the study design,” she noted.

Nichols, also an adjunct professor in Butler University’s College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences in Indianapolis, said researchers are still trying to figure out what causes long COVID in the first place.

“There are several possibilities,” Nichols said. “There still could be components of the virus in the body, or it could be a symptom of the immune response to the virus. Postinfectious illnesses aren’t unique to COVID-19.”

“While children do have a lower likelihood of being hospitalized or dying due to COVID-19, these outcomes do unfortunately still occur,” she said. “I think this is a really important point. Children’s hospitals have been dealing with an onslaught of admissions for acute COVID-19 in the last couple of months.”

Researchers say parents need to know the Delta variant is changing the severity of the illness for children, Dr. Kenneth Shaffer, a pediatric cardiologist at Pediatric Congenital Cardiology Associates in Austin, Texas, told Healthline.

“The Delta variant seems to be affecting children much worse than the first waves,” Shaffer said. “More kids are in the hospital and more kids are sick. Many children have had to be managed and hospitalized with COVID-19 pneumonia and other common presentations of the illness. Some even develop a viral infection of the heart muscle or an inflammation or swelling of the heart muscle, called myocarditis. Children can die from the infection.”

“There are others who do relatively well with the initial infection, but then they fail to have control over their immune system, and they develop an illness 2 to 6 weeks later,” he added.

Parents also need to know the variants have changed the virus landscape that seemed to be getting safer when restrictions were lifted late last spring.

“All the rules we knew about COVID-19 are changing because of the variants,” Dr. Ilan Shapiro, medical director of health education and wellness at AltaMed Health Service, told Healthline. “Also, kids are being exposed to more people at this point than ever in the pandemic, and these factors are fueling more infections and more severity of illness from the virus.”

“At the beginning, we thought kids were less affected by the virus. Now we are seeing that youth are experiencing COVID long-hauler symptoms, similar to adults, such as headaches, chronic migraine, inflammation, and more,” he added.

“We are also seeing multisystem inflammatory in children (MIS-C) appear after about 2 weeks after infection. MIS-C is specific to younger children and peculiar to see in teens and can have different long-term effects on a child’s health,” Shapiro said.

“The virus is harming everyone equally — half of children in hospitals are immunocompromised or have other chronic diseases and the other half are healthy people,” he noted. “That’s why it’s so important for schools, communities, parents, teachers, and everyone around kids to maintain good health and set as many boundaries as possible between kids and the virus.”

As booster shots become available this fall and vaccines are approved for younger children, experts agree being proactive is still the best course of action.

“The good news is that kids are not dying, for the most part,” Dr. Robert G. Lahita, director of the Institute for Autoimmune and Rheumatic Disease at St. Joseph Medical Center in Newark, New Jersey, told Healthline. “Children are so resilient and rarely do they succumb to this virus. I’m more concerned about teachers giving the virus to children and vice versa. I’m very much in favor of mandating vaccination for all teachers and ancillary staff in schools.”