As COVID-19 continues to spread, it's important to take precautions to reduce your family's risk of infection. The best way to keep your family safe is taking preventive measures such as getting the COVID-19 vaccine if eligible, wearing a mask (if over age 2) and regularly washing hands.
But with the highly contagious Delta variant circulating, more children are getting COVID-19. As kids attend school, see friends and participate in extracurricular activities, one of the most common questions parents are asking is: What should I do if my child is exposed to COVID-19?
It's helpful to have a plan for what to do if your child is exposed to COVID-19. Being prepared can help you stay calm and know the best steps to take to avoid potential further spread of the virus.
Here are some important details parents should know about COVID-19 exposure in children.
What is considered exposure to COVID-19?
COVID-19 exposure is when you have close contact with someone who has COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines close contact as being within 6 feet of someone with COVID-19 for 15 minutes or more during a 24-hour period. The 15 minutes are cumulative – so three 5-minute exposures in a day still count.
For children in school, as long as students are consistently and correctly wearing face masks, they are not considered a close contact or exposure if one tests positive for COVID-19, even if they were within 3 to 6 feet from each other.
COVID-19 spreads primarily through respiratory droplets, such as when an infected person breathes, speaks, sings, exercises, coughs or sneezes. If your child is exposed to COVID-19, their risk of infection depends on the amount of virus they are exposed to. This can depend on factors such as air circulation (outdoor spaces have a lower risk), the duration of time your child was exposed and mask wearing.
"Masks are considered an important tool for source control," explains Carla Garcia Carreno, M.D., Pediatric Infectious Disease Specialist at Children's Health℠. "If a student wears a proper mask (a well-fitted mask covering the nose and mouth), the risk of spreading infection is minimal because this would prevent any infectious respiratory particle to be expelled and infect others." See tips to help your child wear a mask.
Risk of infection also depends on whether your child is vaccinated for COVID-19 or not. Data has shown that COVID-19 vaccines offer protection against infection. The protection is highest against severe disease, but the vaccines still decrease the chance of becoming infected, even with the Delta variant.
Keep in mind that someone can spread the virus up to 2 days before showing symptoms or testing positive. That means a friend or family member could spread COVID-19 even if they don't show signs of being sick.
What do I do if my child is exposed to COVID-19?
If your child is exposed to COVID-19, you can take steps to help prevent any potential spread of the virus. What you should do depends on whether or not your child is vaccinated for COVID-19.
What to do if your child is not vaccinated and is exposed to COVID-19
If your child is not vaccinated for COVID-19 and is exposed to the virus, your child should quarantine at home for 14 days and watch for symptoms. If needed, the CDC says that you can shorten your child's quarantine to 10 days as long as your child shows no symptoms, or to 7 days if your child has a negative COVID-19 test on or after day 5. If your child had COVID-19 in the past 3 months, they do not need to quarantine after exposure as long as they have recovered and do not have any symptoms.
For unvaccinated individuals, the CDC recommends getting a COVID-19 test after learning of exposure to the virus. If your child is negative for COVID-19, you can test them again in 5-7 days from the exposure. See community testing locations and tips to help prepare your child for a COVID-19 test.
If you have someone in your household who is at high risk for severe COVID-19 illness or who is unvaccinated, try to distance your child from them during the quarantine time if possible. Continue to watch for any symptoms of COVID-19 in your child until 14 days after exposure.
If your unvaccinated child starts to show symptoms at any point after COVID-19 exposure, isolate and contact their primary care provider. A COVID-19 test can confirm whether or not your child has COVID-19.
What to do if your child is vaccinated and is exposed to COVID-19
If your child is fully vaccinated for COVID-19, they do not need to quarantine after COVID-19 exposure unless they show symptoms. However, it's recommended that they get a COVID-19 test 3-5 days after exposure, even if they do not show any symptoms. See COVID-19 community testing locations.
Fully vaccinated children who are exposed to COVID-19 and live in a household with someone who is immunosuppressed, at risk for severe disease or unvaccinated, could also consider wearing a mask while at home. After exposure, they should also wear a mask in public indoor settings for 14 days or until a negative test is obtained. Currently, given the high circulation of Delta variant, the CDC recommends that everyone, including fully vaccinated individuals, wear a mask in public indoor settings when in areas with high COVID-19 spread.
If your vaccinated child starts to show symptoms at any point after COVID-19 exposure, isolate and contact their health care provider. A COVID-19 test can confirm whether or not your child has COVID-19.
Other considerations for children after COVID-19 exposure
If you think your child was exposed to COVID-19 but you are not sure about the details, call your doctor or pediatrician for advice on testing. A COVID-19 test may provide you peace of mind, especially as some children may show no or mild symptoms.
It's important to know that you do not need to bring your child to the emergency room (ER) if they were exposed to COVID-19 but have no or mild symptoms. The ER is designed for emergency, lifesaving care. If your child has been exposed to COVID-19, your child's primary care provider can best advise you. If your child's primary care office is closed or not available and your child is showing non-life-threatening symptoms, you can take them to an urgent care center for care or testing. Learn more about when to visit an ER vs. an urgent care, and see Children's Health PM Urgent Care locations.
What are the symptoms of COVID-19 in children?
There is a wide range of symptoms that children can develop with COVID-19. Your child can show symptoms anywhere between 2 and 14 days after exposure.
Symptoms of COVID-19 in children can include:
- Fever (at least 100°F)
- Congestion or runny nose
- Muscle or body aches
- Nausea or vomiting
- New loss of taste or smell
- Shortness of breath or trouble breathing
- Sore throat
If your child shows any of these symptoms, be sure to contact your doctor or pediatrician. Remember that symptoms can range from mild to severe.
If your child shows any of the following emergency warning signs of COVID-19, seek emergency medical attention immediately:
- Trouble breathing
- Persistent pain or pressure in the chest
- New confusion
- Inability to wake or stay awake
- Pale, gray, or blue-colored skin, lips, or nail beds, depending on skin tone
- Signs of dehydration (dry mouth, no tears, decreased urination) or inability to take liquids by mouth
If my child was exposed to COVID-19, should I quarantine?
If you find out that your child was exposed to COVID-19, you don't need to quarantine if you are fully vaccinated. If you are not fully vaccinated, it's safest to quarantine until you confirm that your child doesn't have the virus.
If your child shows symptoms of COVID-19 or tests positive for COVID-19, you do not need to quarantine if you are fully vaccinated but you should get tested within 3-5 days. If you are not vaccinated, you should quarantine along with anyone else who is unvaccinated and lives in your home and get tested accordingly.
When in doubt, contact your health care provider with any questions. They will be able to provide specific instructions for quarantine and testing based on your child's exposure, symptoms and local health department guidance. You can also check with your child's school about specific instructions for returning to activities.
More COVID-19 resources
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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