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 Omicron variant circulating, more people 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 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 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. 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, 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, the CDC recommends your child should quarantine at home for 5 days. 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.
After 5 days of quarantine, your child should continue to wear a mask (if over age 2) when around others for an additional 5 days to prevent any possible spread.
It’s recommended that you test your child for COVID‑19 on day 5 after exposure. This can help confirm whether or not your child has COVID‑19 even if they are not showing any symptoms. See community testing locations and tips to help prepare your child for a COVID‑19 test.
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 a diagnosis.
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 wear a mask around others for 10 days to prevent any possible spread of the virus. It’s also recommended they get a COVID‑19 test 5 days after exposure, even if they do not show any symptoms. See COVID‑19 community testing locations.
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.
Note: If your child completed their COVID‑19 vaccination series over 6 months ago and they are not boosted, the CDC recommends you follow guidance for unvaccinated individuals after COVID‑19 exposure.
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)
- 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, 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 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. Wearing a mask around others can also help prevent possible spread.
If your child shows symptoms of COVID‑19 or tests positive for COVID‑19, you and anyone in your household should follow CDC guidelines for COVID‑19 exposure:
- If you are vaccinated and have received a booster shot, OR have been fully vaccinated within the last 6 months for Pfizer or Moderna or 2 months for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, then you do not need to quarantine. Wear a mask around others for 10 days and get tested for COVID‑19 on day 5, if possible.
- If you are not vaccinated, OR it has been more than 6 months since you completed your Pfizer or Moderna vaccine series or 2 months since Johnson & Johnson and you are not boosted, then you should stay at home for 5 days and wear a mask around others for an additional 5 days. Test on day 5 if possible.
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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