How Covid-19 Can Affect A Child's Brain

A COVID vaccine is now available to children under 5 years of age. Marissa Vaster Lee, MD, answers questions about the effects on a developing brain.

How Often Do Children Experience Brain Problems, Memory Issues, Attention Problems, Or Any Other Neurological Symptoms After A Covid?

It is very rare. It is very rare. About half of children with COVID infections will experience fatigue and headaches for several weeks. However, less than 3% of those who have had the disease for four to eight weeks have any neurologic symptoms.

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What Are The Most Common Symptoms And How Long Can They Last?

Most children with a COVID infection have only respiratory symptoms. About half of children report experiencing headaches and fatigue as the most common neurologic symptoms. Facial nerve palsy, febrile seizures and other rare neurologic symptoms are common signs of a COVID infection. However, these symptoms are extremely rare and can lead to more serious neurological conditions such as strokes, encephalitis, and inflammatory brain lesion (sometimes known as ADEM-acute disseminated encephalomyelitis).

Many children experience persistent headaches and fatigue after infection. This is usually within the first 4-8 weeks. Nearly all of these children are now fully recovered 8 weeks after infection. Only 3% of children who have been infected by COVID will experience persistent neurologic symptoms for the rest of their lives.

These symptoms include migraines, headaches that last for days, and new attention problems. They can also lead to a decrease in academic skills. Although some teenagers report feeling “brain fog”, this is a rare condition. These symptoms may last several months in rare cases. However, each child’s length will vary.

Are These Symptoms Causing Long-Term Health Problems In Children?

Children can suffer from migraines and persistent headaches that develop over time. This can make it difficult for them to live a normal life. Brain fog is a common condition in teenagers.

We don’t know how long these neurologic symptoms will last for children who have suffered from COVID long-term. There is still so much to learn about COVID. However, we know there are ways children can cope with these symptoms and get better. Psychological intervention is one way to help children deal with these symptoms. Families can also seek out headache prevention medications and physical therapy.

Are Experts Able To Explain Why These Symptoms Occur?

Unfortunately, we don’t know the reason for these long-term symptoms. We don’t know why certain children and adults are affected while others aren’t. It does not necessarily correlate to the severity of the first COVID infection.

The past two years have proven to be very stressful for children. Worldwide, anxiety and depression rates have risen. Even children who were not previously affected by COVID may now be experiencing new-onset headaches, migraines and other neurologic symptoms.

What Can Parents Do If Their Child Is Experiencing Symptoms?

Parents should trust their instincts. Parents know their children best. Talk to your doctor if your child experiences fatigue or headaches after a COVID infection.

Your primary care physician is the best person to talk to about your child’s medical history. You can have your child referred to the closest pediatric subspecialist for help. This could be child neurology to treat headaches and migraines, or cardiology to address syncope concerns.

Children’s hospitals often have Long COVID clinics for children. Others triage patients to the appropriate sub-specialty. Both methods are effective in getting your child to a specialist who can help. Cincinnati Children’s has a sub-specialty that specializes in the problem your child is having.

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