What Parents Need to Know about Masks, Vaccines and Other Things about COVID-19

Cases of the delta variant of COVID-19 have increased significantly locally, nationally and globally in recent weeks, including among children. Many parents want to know how children are affected, what they can do to keep them safe, and what symptoms to look for in children.

With help from experts at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt, we've answered some common questions parents are asking pediatricians.

Q: Is the delta variant more dangerous in children than previous variants?

A: Right now, we don’t have reason to think the delta variant is more dangerous than the original variant. We're seeing a tremendous increase in the number of cases. The delta variant is more contagious. This leads to more children being sick, being admitted to the hospital, and having a serious illness.

Q: What can I do to reduce my child’s risk of getting sick with COVID-19?

A: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics call for a layered approach to keep school-age children protected from COVID-19. This includes the recommendation that everyone 2 years and older wear a mask, even if vaccinated, when indoors in K-12 schools. Masks are shown to reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Masks help protect school-age children who aren't yet eligible to get a vaccine.

Additional steps to protect children include:

  • social distancing, when possible (6 feet away from others)
  • frequent handwashing
  • avoiding others when sick
  • being vaccinated (age 12 and older)

Q: Can you spread COVID-19 if you're vaccinated and develop an infection?

A: Vaccinated people infected with the delta variant carry amounts of the virus similar to those who aren't vaccinated, new data from the CDC show. This led the CDC to recommend that vaccinated people wear masks indoors. This is so they won't unknowingly spread the virus to others, including people who aren't vaccinated or who have weakened immune systems.

Fortunately, infections in vaccinated people aren't common. When they do occur, they're much milder than infections in those that are unvaccinated.

Q: If children get COVID-19, can they get very sick?

A: Although it isn't as common for children to become severely ill, there's a chance they can. This is particularly true for those with underlying health conditions.

Seek medical care if:

  • you're concerned about your child's breathing or ability to stay hydrated
  • your child seems sicker than they normally might be with a respiratory infection.

Q: What are the symptoms of COVID-19 in children?

A: COVID symptoms in children and adolescents include:

  • fever (greater than 100.4)
  • congestion or a runny nose
  • sore throat
  • loss of taste or smell (not as common in children as adults)
  • new cough
  • having trouble breathing
  • chills
  • headache
  • muscle pain
  • being very tired 

Some children may also have nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Children are also more likely to test positive for COVID without showing symptoms. Children who don't have symptoms may still spread the virus to others.

Q: Whom should I contact if I have questions about my child’s symptoms or concerns about exposure?

A: Contact your family pediatrician first to discuss symptoms and next steps rather than bring your child into an emergency department. Children’s Hospital also has several after-hours clinics where your child can be assessed when your pediatrician’s office is closed.

If your child has any of the following symptoms, bring them to the emergency department:

  • Having trouble breathing or being in distress
  • Severe headache or muscle aches
  • A high fever causing a change in behavior

Q: Should my child get the COVID-19 vaccine?

A: Anyone 12 or older can get a COVID-19 vaccine. We strongly urge everyone who's eligible to get vaccinated. Research shows that the COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective. Significant side effects that have been seen are very rare. As with other diseases, vaccination is important to protect your child and those around them against severe illness.

You can schedule an appointment today with Vanderbilt Health, even if you or your child are not Vanderbilt patients. Schedule your vaccine. You can also check with your local health department or find another location near you at Vaccines.gov.

Q: When will children 11 years and younger be eligible to get a COVID-19 vaccine?

A: Researchers at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and elsewhere are studying the safety and effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccine in children age 11 and younger. It may be several more months before vaccines are ready for distribution in children.

Q: How do I tell the difference between RSV, COVID-19 and other illnesses that cause similar symptoms?

A: Unfortunately, you can't tell these respiratory illnesses apart based on symptoms alone.

Both RSV and COVID can cause fever, runny nose, cough, vomiting, diarrhea and difficulty breathing. COVID can cause loss of taste and smell, which is not typical in RSV, but young children don't usually have that symptom.

The best way to tell between RSV and COVID in children is to get a COVID-19 test.

Q: My child is around someone who tested positive: What should I do next and when?

A: If your child was a close contact, it is recommended that they quarantine for 14 days. Close contact is defined as being within 6 feet of an infected person for a total of 15 minutes or more over 24 hours.

Quarantine can end early (after day 7) if they test negative at least 5 days after their last exposure to the infected person and they don't develop symptoms.

More from the CDC about quarantine and isolation to help stop the spread of COVID-19.