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Researchers are learning about the risks of children developing long COVID-19.Westend61/Getty Images
  • Newly released research from the United Kingdom finds that children are much less likely to experience symptoms of “long COVID.” But this research was done before the Delta variant became widespread.
  • These new findings are at odds with the U.K. government’s reported data of children experiencing long-term symptoms after COVID-19 infection.
  • Also, the findings may not account for a dangerous syndrome called multisystem inflammatory syndrome, which has appeared weeks or months after a child initially developed COVID-19.

All data and statistics are based on publicly available data at the time of publication. Some information may be out of date. Visit our coronavirus hub and follow our live updates page for the most recent information on the COVID-19 pandemic.

A new study from the United Kingdom provides a detailed description of COVID-19 in children ages 5 to 17 years old.

Researchers analyzed data from nearly 2,000 children who tested positive close to the onset of symptoms and whose traits were regularly reported until they were healthy again.

The findings, based on information reported through the ZOE smartphone app by parents and caregivers, indicate that the most common symptoms in children were headaches, fever, tiredness, sore throat, and loss of smell.

“Studies like this one are terribly important for informing the medical community about the natural history of COVID in children,” Dr. Michael Grosso, chief medical officer and chair, pediatrics, Northwell Health’s Huntington Hospital in Long Island, New York, told Healthline. “So that we can distinguish the expected from the unexpected and provide meaningful guidance to the families of affected children.”

Researchers focused on data collected between Sept. 1, 2020, and Feb. 22, 2021, before the Delta variant became the dominant strain of the current pandemic.

According to the study, 1,734 children developed COVID-19 symptoms and received a positive PCR test result close to the onset of their symptoms.

This means researchers could confidently attribute symptoms to COVID-19 to assess illness duration. According to received reports, the children were sick for 6 days and had an average of 3 symptoms in the first week of illness.

This suggests that the version of SARS-CoV-2 circulating at that time tended to manifest as a mild illness in children with typically rapid recovery.

However, about 4.5 percent of children experienced symptoms beyond 4 weeks, considered “long COVID.”

Researchers also compared COVID-positive children with children experiencing other illnesses and found those with COVID-19 were more likely to be ill longer than 4 weeks. After 4 weeks, children with other illnesses tended to have more symptoms.

“As so often happens in science, new answers prompt new questions. Would the results be the same if this study were conducted in a different patient population?” Grosso asked. “Also, would the results look similar or different for children infected with the more recently circulating variants, such as Delta? Additional research will be needed to enlighten these and other issues.”

This analysis was based on data collected up to February 2021, so it doesn’t offer insight on how the highly infectious Delta variant, which began dominating in the United Kingdom in May, might affect children’s risk of long COVID.

Study authors acknowledged they couldn’t cross-check symptoms reported by parents and caregivers with health records, and there may be inconsistencies in how people interpreted their children’s symptoms.

Only children who had an adult participating in the COVID Symptom Study participated, which may have biased participation toward particular demographic groups.

Critically, researchers noted that their findings on the number of children experiencing prolonged symptoms are lower than the most recent figures from the United Kingdom.

The study also excluded children who experienced a gap in symptoms of more than 1 week, although research indicates that people can have prolonged COVID-19 symptoms in a relapsing-remitting pattern.

Up to 30 percent of adults will have lingering COVID-19 symptoms after infection, regardless of disease severity, says Dr. Thomas Gut, associate chair of medicine and the director of the Post-COVID Recovery Center at Staten Island University Hospital in New York.

“And in this case, you’re seeing quite a smaller proportion, a smaller population with these symptoms,” he continued. “Granted that this is using a reporting app, and it looks like it’s done predominantly by the parents, so there’s quite a bit of bias that can occur from that.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children associated with COVID-19 (MIS-C) is a condition where body parts can become inflamed, including the heart, lungs, kidneys, brain, skin, eyes, or gastrointestinal organs.

The syndrome can appear weeks or months after the initial case of COVID-19.

While MIS-C is a serious and potentially deadly condition, the CDC confirms that most children diagnosed with it will improve with medical care.

Signs of MIS-C are fever. Other symptoms can include:

  • abdominal pain
  • vomiting
  • bloodshot eyes
  • chest tightness/pain
  • extreme fatigue

The CDC is still learning about MIS-C and how it affects children and still doesn’t know why some children become ill with MIS-C and others don’t.

“It [MIS-C) generally occurs during the acute infection period,” explained Gut. “When you’re expecting within a week of the virus infection, to see an inflammatory response of the body that might be inappropriately high for the severity of infection that is being seen.”

While the risk for children being hospitalized due to COVID-19 is small, a recent study published in The Lancet Child and Adolescent Health finds that about 1 in 20 children hospitalized with COVID-19 develop brain or nerve complications linked to the viral infection.

Between April 2020 and January 2021, researchers identified 52 cases of children younger than 18 years old with neurological complications among 1,334 children hospitalized with COVID-19.

According to the study, the estimated prevalence in children was almost 4 percent, compared to only 0.9 percent of adults admitted with COVID-19.

The children, who were also diagnosed with MIS-C, displayed multiple neurological conditions that included encephalopathy, stroke, behavioral change, and hallucinations. They were also more likely to require intensive care.

New research from the United Kingdom finds that children are much less likely to experience symptoms of long COVID. However, the findings disagree with the U.K. government’s reported data of children experiencing long-term symptoms after COVID-19 disease.

The study used information reported by caregivers on a phone app, and experts say this could significantly bias the results. More research will be needed to reach firm conclusions.

Other recent studies also find children hospitalized with COVID-19 are at significantly increased risk of COVID-related inflammatory disease (MIS-C), which is associated with organ damage and neurological issues.