Aug 3, 2020, 9:13:33 AM CDT Dec 1, 2023, 9:47:52 AM CST

How to prepare children for a COVID-19 test

See five tips to help ease fear and know what to expect if your child needs a COVID-19 test.

Doctor giving test to child while mother holds them in lap Doctor giving test to child while mother holds them in lap

COVID‑19 testing is an important tool. It can help you understand if your child has COVID‑19 and, if they do, take appropriate steps to help avoid spreading it to other people. Preparing your child for a COVID‑19 test can make the experience easier for kids and parents alike.

"Kids don't know what the test is going to be like," says Jennifer Roady, MS, CCLS, Supervisor of Child Life Services at Children's Health℠. "As a Child Life Specialist, part of my job is to help kids overcome any fears they may have about medical procedures, and the COVID‑19 test is no different."

Testing for COVID‑19 often involves taking a swab of the nose and sending the sample to a lab for testing. At-home tests may also be used, and can detect if your child has COVID‑19 in 15-30 minutes. If your child needs a COVID‑19 test, Roady suggests taking these steps to ease fears and help them prepare.

Tips to prepare children for a COVID‑19 test

1. Remain calm.

Regardless of your child's age, one of the most important things a parent can do to help ease fear is to remain calm and reassuring.

"Children can sense when their parents are stressed," says Roady. “While it is normal to feel anxious if your child needs testing for COVID‑19, take time to calm yourself before speaking to your child.”

2. Prepare yourself.

Gather information by using reliable sources to help prepare yourself and your child for testing. Credible sources include the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and local health departments. Both can provide information about COVID‑19 and testing. Knowing you have accurate information can help calm fears.

If you are using an at-home test, make sure that your child is old enough. Age requirements should be listed on the box or in the test instructions. It is important to read the instructions and follow them closely, because the test results might not be accurate if you don’t.

Once you are well-informed, you can help your kids understand what is going to happen.

3. Tell your child what they can expect.

For younger children, give accurate information and a brief description of what to expect. Knowing what to expect helps children feel more comfortable. You can describe the process in simple steps. If you are going to a testing center, you might tell your child:

  • We are going to the doctor.
  • At the doctor, you are going to sit on my lap, and I'm going to give you a big hug.
  • A nurse wearing a gown and a special mask will put a cotton swab in your nose and wiggle it around a little bit.

If you are using an at-home test, it is still important to tell them what to expect. This could be as simple as telling them that you will put a cotton swab in their nose and wiggle it around a little bit.

If your child is old enough to perform an at-home test on their own, help by going over the instructions with them to ensure the results are as accurate as possible.

Though the COVID‑19 test is uncomfortable and may feel like water rushing up their nose, it's important to be honest with your child – rather than saying it won't hurt. You can tell them it might sting a little or it might be a little uncomfortable. Roady says for younger kids, you can say "It is going to hurt for a second," or "It is going to be super-fast, and we can count while we do it."

4. Tell your child they are not in trouble.

It's important to stress to your child that they are not in trouble. Tell them this test is important to make sure their body is healthy. Even if the test hurts briefly, it is going to help them.

5. Provide information based on your child's age.

While younger children don't need to know all the details of COVID‑19, you can discuss things more in-depth with children aged 12 or older.

"Give them honest information they can handle for their age and leave it open for them to ask questions," encourages Roady.

Ask your child about their thoughts and feelings and let them know it is okay to be frustrated with the test.

When should a child get tested for COVID‑19?

Recommendations for COVID‑19 testing may vary by person or location. If you are concerned that your child is showing symptoms of COVID‑19 or has been exposed to someone with COVID‑19, call your child's health care provider to ask about next steps.

Symptoms of COVID‑19 can include:

  • Fever or chills
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headache
  • New loss of taste or smell
  • Sore throat
  • Congestion or runny nose
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea

See more information about COVID‑19 community testing locations in North Texas.

Are at-home COVID‑19 tests accurate for kids?

At-home COVID‑19 tests, also known as self-tests or over-the-counter (OTC) tests, are an important public health tool. They can be used on children and accurately detect high levels of COVID‑19. Having an at-home COVID‑19 test on hand is helpful to quickly test your child when needed.

"Rapid tests are an effective, efficient and convenient means to screen children for the COVID‑19 virus," says Jeffrey Kahn, M.D., Director of Infectious Disease at Children's Health℠ and Professor at UT Southwestern. “While these tests are not as sensitive as the molecular or PCR-based tests, a positive test result confirms the infection in most cases and allows the parents to take the necessary steps in keeping their child isolated."

  • If your child has COVID‑19 symptoms and tests positive on an at-home test, they have the virus. They don't need to get another test to confirm. Isolate from others and watch for any warning signs that your child needs medical care.
  • If your child has COVID‑19 symptoms and tests negative on an at-home test, this means that the test did not detect the virus. However, this does not rule out COVID‑19 infection. If your child has symptoms, it's best to continue isolating and to either schedule a PCR test or to repeat a self-test 24-28 hours later.
  • If your child doesn't have COVID‑19 symptoms and is testing before attending an event, such as a family or social gathering, they should test as close to the time of the gathering as possible.

It's important to remember that COVID‑19 tests are helpful for checking for current infection – but test results are only accurate for that point in time. It is possible to develop infection after you receive a negative test, especially if you test too early after COVID‑19 exposure.

Learn more

Children's Health is committed to remaining a trusted source of health information and care for you and your family during this time. See more resources to keep your family healthy at the Children's Health COVID‑19 hub.

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