Now that many kids are back in school after the winter holidays—at the same time that cases are on the rise again across the country—parents are bracing for Covid to hit their homes, if it hasn’t already. The Omicron variant has now overtaken the Delta variant in terms of new infections, but Delta is still making up a large percentage of new cases, too.
And though many Covid rapid tests and PCR tests can pick up the new variant, (the FDA has a short list of the ones that don’t), these tests don’t convey which strain you’ve got. That means you’re left to try and distinguish which type you have based on symptoms alone. And because evidence is stacking up that symptoms of Omicron are more mild than those of Delta, knowing which variant you have can help you make better treatment decisions from the outset while keeping a close eye on severity.
Severe cases are uncommon in kids
It’s reassuring to note that severe cases of Covid—from any strain—are still relatively rare in children. According to The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), although pediatric cases of Covid are currently rising at drastic rates (they’re nearly double the case numbers seen at the start of December 2021, and 325,000 new cases were added as of the week ending Dec. 30, 2021), it appears that severe illness due to Covid is uncommon among kids. The rate of hospitalization in the under-18 age group is just 0.1% to 1.6% of Covid cases in children—very low.
We spoke with pediatrician Neela Sethi Young, MD, who practices in California and is the co-founder of Jaanuu, about the Omicron cases she’s seeing in her clinic and what types of symptoms parents can look out for.
Common symptoms of Omicron in kids
According to Dr. Young, the most commonly reported symptoms of Omicron, in order of occurrence, include:
- Sore or scratchy throat
- Nasal congestion
- Dry cough
- Body aches, most notably back pain and neck pain
- Mild fever
“Omicron symptoms usually start with a sore throat and turn to runny nose and coughing with some body soreness,” Dr. Young explains. She notes that the fevers among her patients have been more mild in this wave of the virus, and very few patients are reporting a loss of taste and smell or shortness of breath. In contrast to the Delta variant, Dr. Young notes, “Omicron seems very flu-like.”
Additional Omicron symptoms in kids may include:
- Fatigue and lethargy
- Gastrointestinal symptoms, such as nausea and diarrhea
Symptoms less commonly seen with Omicron:
- Loss of taste and smell
- Shortness of breath
Experts in the U.K. have noted that Omicron seems to spare the lungs from serious damage, a major difference between this strain and the Delta variant. In many cases, the shortness of breath and rapid, shallow breathing that were classically associated with Delta aren’t appearing with Omicron infection. That said, some people with Omicron infection, especially if they’re unvaccinated or haven’t been previously infected with the virus, can still get very sick and require hospitalization.
When do symptoms start to appear?
With Omicron, symptoms may begin showing up much sooner—generally three to five days after exposure, Dr. Young says. Symptoms also tend to last five to seven days, with day three or four being the height of symptom severity. “After a week, most people tend to feel better,” she shares.
Is Omicron infection more mild?
Research points to the fact that Omicron may be milder than other strains of the virus, and Dr. Young finds this to be true in her pediatric clinic as well. “It’s more mild but more contagious at the same time,” she notes. “It spreads very quickly.” If one member of a household tests positive for the virus, Dr. Young says it’s likely that other members will become infected, too, especially if they’re living in close proximity. Keeping infected people quarantined away from younger children is a good way to try and prevent illness.
How to prevent Omicron infection
For families with young children who can’t get vaccinated, “less is more right now,” Dr. Young states. She recommends laying low as much as possible and avoiding large gatherings and events. If you must attend an event, test before and after you go, and track any symptoms. If your child is in school or daycare and is over the age of 2, “mask-wearing makes a big difference,” Dr. Young stresses, especially medical-grade masks, “and don’t forget proper hand-washing.”
Dr. Neela Sethi Young, a practicing pediatrician in California and the co-founder of Jaanuu, a physician-created and led line of scrubs and face masks.