Aug 23, 2021, 12:18:39 PM CDT Mar 29, 2023, 9:18:30 AM CDT

What to do if your child is exposed to COVID-19

Learn symptoms to watch for in kids and when to get tested for COVID-19

Little girl wearing face mask Little girl wearing face mask

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 by taking preventive measures such as getting the COVID‑19 vaccine if eligible, wearing a mask (if over age 2) and regularly washing hands.

As variants continue to emerge, COVID‑19 infections will affect the community. 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 or if they start showing symptoms. 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 contact with someone who has COVID‑19.

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. Some factors include the duration of time your child was exposed, activity, whether the person they were around had symptoms at the time, mask wearing and more.

"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 has recently been infected with COVID‑19. 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 getting sick. For those who are eligible, a COVID‑19 booster dose also improves protection over time.

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, take steps to prevent potential spread of the virus immediately after exposure, regardless of vaccination status.

If they are over age 2, children should wear a mask for 10 full days. Watch for symptoms of COVID‑19 and get tested at least 5 full days after being exposed. They should test even if they don't have symptoms. If your child tests positive for COVID‑19 or has symptoms, they should stay home.

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 take your child to the ER for COVID‑19, 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)
  • Chills
  • Congestion or runny nose
  • Cough
  • Diarrhea
  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • 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, contact your doctor or pediatrician and get tested. 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 isolate?

If you find out that your child was exposed to COVID‑19, you don't need to isolate, but should take precautions, such as wearing a mask, immediately. Get tested at least 5 full days after exposure.

If your child shows symptoms of COVID‑19 or tests positive for COVID‑19, they should stay home for at least 5 days.

When in doubt, contact your health care provider with any questions. They will be able to provide specific instructions for isolation 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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