How do I know if my child has COVID-19 or a cold?

October 9, 2020

As Canadian families head into the heart of autumn, the thoughts of parents shift from back-to-school trepidation to cold and flu season concerns. This year is different from other years, as families wonder—and worry—about monitoring the health of their kids during the pandemic.

With everything taken into consideration—colds, allergies, seasonal flu, and COVID-19—it’s hard to know the route to take if your child isn’t feeling well. Suddenly, you’re faced with navigating a labyrinth of symptoms and scenarios.

How do I know if my child has COVID-19 or a cold?

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When to keep your child at home

While provincial resources and guidelines for COVID-19 differ slightly, the message from each is the same: If your child is showing a mild symptom of any kind, keep them at home. This may be difficult for parents with jobs outside the home, but it is the definitive advice from health authorities.

In previous years, children who had minor cold symptoms still attended school, letting their colds run the course after the contagious stage had passed. Times have changed—public health states that children must be symptom-free to attend school or daycare, period.

What are COVID-19 symptoms in children?

The tell-tale signs of a cold are sore throat, runny nose, tiredness, and cough, with generally no fever present. In some COVID-19 cases, other cold symptoms may also be present, which makes it even harder for parents to assess the health of their children.

According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, symptoms of COVID-19 vary from person to person and can differ among age groups. Commonly reported symptoms include:

  • temperature of 38 °C or over
  • new or worsening cough
  • shortness of breath or trouble breathing
  • fatigue
  • chills
  • muscle pain or body aches
  • headache
  • loss of taste or smell
  • nausea and/or vomiting, and diarrhea*
  • skin changes or rashes*

*Children tend to exhibit abdominal and skin symptoms

When to call the doctor

Parents are advised to call the family doctor or pediatrician if your child is showing signs of a cold plus a fever. Call the doctor if symptoms include trouble breathing, belly pain, vomiting, or diarrhea. Make sure the doctor has all the necessary information about your child, including if they have come into contact with others who may have the coronavirus.

When to get tested

Your doctor can then decide if your little patient should be tested for COVID-19. Your local health authority can advise on where and when to visit a testing centre, including whether an appointment is required. If your doctor recommends testing, keep your family home until you receive a negative result or symptoms are gone. Keep family members and pets away and try to have a single caregiver for the sick child. If the child is over age two, he and the caregiver should wear face masks. Ensure the rest of the family practices physical distancing, proper hand hygiene, and disinfects high-touch household surfaces regularly during the period of self-isolation.

The bottom line

It is better to be safe than sorry. Remember: for children with symptoms of any kind—no school or daycare. Children with very mild cases of COVID-19 can still spread it. Keep in mind that the cold symptoms can show up first with the fever coming later. In all situations, be on your toes, and be aware of the facts.

The Government of Canada continues to monitor and update COVID-19 resources for parents and children. Additional resources for families can be found by consulting provincial health updates, as well as the Canadian Pediatric Society.

Stay informed, stay safe, and stay healthy.

The material on this website is provided for entertainment, informational and educational purposes only and should never act as a substitute to the advice of an applicable professional. Use of this website is subject to our terms of use and privacy policy.
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