How Parents Can Tell the Difference Between Cold and Coronavirus Symptoms

Kate Schweitzer
·5 mins read
A young mixed race girl getting her Ethiopian dad, to wipe her runny nose whilst playing together at home.
A young mixed race girl getting her Ethiopian dad, to wipe her runny nose whilst playing together at home.

Because it's so hard to escape news about the novel coronavirus, many parents might think the illness is already at their child's bedroom door. Thankfully, preliminary and ongoing studies have shown that babies and children are not getting seriously sick from COVID-19. To date, there have been fewer than 100 U.S. pediatric deaths connected with the virus. Although that is arguably 100 deaths too many, with more than 216,000 nationwide deaths, such an outcome is incredibly rare.

Still, having a sick kid at home can make an otherwise unfazed parent anxious about what to do.

Health officials have released some guidelines to help decipher what is likely a common cold versus potential coronavirus symptoms - and when to take action.

When Should I Keep My Kid Home From Day Care or School Because of the Coronavirus?

If your child is healthy and your school is open, they can attend as usual. As has always been the case, if your child has a fever, they should stay home. Chances are high that it is not the coronavirus, but they are still contagious.

Many schools and pediatric offices are recommending that children with a persistent cough or runny nose should remain at home as well. Although that might seem more extreme - what preschooler isn't a boogery mess most days?! - it's simply an added step to mitigating risk.

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"Not only is staying home and resting the best way to get better, but also you don't want to panic others by having your child cough in their child's face," said Dr. Claire McCarthy, MD, a primary care pediatrician who is also a professor at Harvard University.

In these cases, you should follow the health guidelines of your child's day care or school in determining when to return. Typically, they have to be fever-free, without the help of medications like acetaminophen or ibuprofen, for at least 24 hours.

When Should I Seek Medical Attention For Potential Coronavirus Contraction?

If your child has a fever and cough, you should handle it as you normally would. If the symptoms wouldn't normally prompt a visit to the doctor's office, there's no reason to go now.

However, there are warning signs that, if exhibited in your child, warrant a call to your doctor or potentially a visit to their office.

You should reach out to your pediatrician if your child has:

  • any trouble breathing (rapid or heavy breathing, sucking in around the neck or ribs)

  • a severe cough that won't stop or that interferes with sleep or play

  • a high fever that won't come down even with medication

  • unusual sleepiness

  • any signs of dehydration (refusal to take fluids, dry mouth, not urinating at least every six hours, no tears when crying)

Another possible symptom to note is a skin condition dubbed "COVID toes." Dermatologists believe that purple, blue, or red lesions - similar to a cold-weather skin condition called pernio - appearing on patients' toes may be a way to diagnose the infection, as they have appeared in otherwise asymptomatic and severe cases alike.

What Other Precautions Can I Take to Keep My Family From Getting the Coronavirus?

Unless there is a specific public health advisory in your area, you do not need to go to extreme measures, like a self-imposed quarantine, to avoid people who are sick. "This does not mean holing up in your house, skipping school or daycare, and declining every birthday party invitation," Dr. McCarthy said.

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Although not much is known about COVID-19, what is known is that it spreads similarly to the flu. Thus, the same precautions you are advised to take every year to avoid spreading the flu can help keep you and those around you safe from the coronavirus. The only trick is teaching young kids how to be mindful of these best practices:

Make sure they wash their hands.
Remind them to wash their hands before eating, after using the bathroom, after being in public spaces, and after being around people who might be sick. They should use soap and water for 20 seconds. A common trick is to have them sing "Happy Birthday to You" twice in a row while they wash.

Make sure they don't touch their faces with their hands.
"This is easier said than done, I admit," Dr. McCarthy said. "Make a game out of it - have them itch with their knees instead." Also, carry tissues for wiping mouths and noses.

Make sure that when they cough, they do so into their elbow.
Teach your kids not to cough into their hands, and that if they do, they need to wash them immediately. Instead, teach them to cough into the "cough pocket," otherwise known as the crook of their elbow, which is the best way to avoid spreading germs when they cough or sneeze.

Make sure they don't touch too many public surfaces.
Again, this might seem futile for parents of young kids. "Little hands seem to instinctively reach for everything around them, so you'll need to be creative," Dr. McCarthy said. "Bring things for them to hold instead, or hold hands with them. Have them wear gloves." And in some climates, they'd wear gloves anyway. Just be sure to wash them frequently.

POPSUGAR aims to give you the most accurate and up-to-date information about the coronavirus, but details and recommendations about this pandemic may have changed since publication. For the latest information on COVID-19, please check out resources from the WHO, CDC, and local public health departments.