Long COVID in children: A closer look reveals lasting impacts

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In a recent study published in the journal Pediatrics, a large team of scientists from the United States (U.S.) reviewed existing studies on post-acute sequelae of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) (PASC) to understand the long-term impact of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) infections in the pediatric population, including factors such as prevalence, clinical characteristics, risk factors, and underlying mechanisms.

STATE-OF-THE-ART REVIEW - Postacute Sequelae of SARS-CoV-2 in Children. Image Credit: Donkeyworx / Shutterstock

Background

The global impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has touched multiple spheres of life, with economic and social consequences apart from the massive effect on the medical and healthcare fields. Studies have shown that the pandemic has disproportionately affected specific racial and socioeconomic groups. Furthermore, a significant portion of the population continues to struggle with persistent and debilitating aftereffects and symptoms of COVID-19, which has now been called PASC or long coronavirus disease (long COVID).

Estimates indicate that the U.S. had approximately 20% pediatric cases of COVID-19, of which 10%–20% were thought to develop into PASC, which translates to roughly 5.8 million children in the country. The present study summarizes the current understanding of the epidemiology, prevalence, underlying mechanisms, clinical characteristics, and outcomes of PASC in the pediatric population.

PASC epidemiology

The review found no consensus on the prevalence of PASC among children, with a 4% to 62% prevalence being reported across studies. The researchers believe that differences in factors such as study design, follow-up durations, diagnostic criteria, and study population are responsible for the wide range of prevalence estimates. Furthermore, the broad symptoms, affecting multiple organ systems, and overlaps with existing comorbidities also make it challenging to diagnose PASC.

There is also a paucity of studies examining the trajectory of PASC in the pediatric population, with very few studies having examined the progression of the disease beyond a year. Studies found that only 15% of asymptomatic SARS-CoV-2 infections in children progress to PASC, while 45% of the symptomatic infections were found to result in long-lasting sequelae.

Furthermore, infections with variants before the emergence of Omicron were found to increase the risk of PASC. Increasing age, severity of the infection, higher body weight, chronic underlying medical conditions, and the organ systems affected during the acute SARS-CoV-2 infection were all found to be risk factors for developing PASC.

While the contribution of environmental and psycho-social factors in the development and manifestation of PASC has not been well investigated, the scientists believe that the escalating food and housing insecurity, disruption of educational and health care resources, and lower family income could have increased the mental and physical health problems in children, lowering immunity, and exacerbating existing illnesses.

PASC in children

Based on existing information, the team formulated a conceptual model for PASC in the pediatric population. They defined PASC in children as a heterogeneous group of symptoms occurring after a SARS-CoV-2 infection, consisting of persistent COVID-19 symptoms such as cough, dyspnea, fatigue, headaches, anosmia, ageusia, and chronic pain. Furthermore, exacerbation of existing conditions such as increased cough in children with asthma, deterioration of neurodevelopmental and mental health conditions, and diabetic ketoacidosis in pediatric diabetes cases are also thought to be a part of PASC.

The review emphasizes the need to give special consideration to understanding the development of PASC in children at a higher risk of SARS-CoV-2 infections due to existing comorbidities and medical conditions. The researchers also discussed the potential development of de-novo post-acute conditions and the onset of autoimmune disorders. Studies have already reported multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C) as being one of the prevalent complications of COVID-19 in children.

The review also provided a comprehensive summary of the wide range of manifestations and symptoms of PASC, including constitutional symptoms such as persistent fatigue, post-exertional malaise, brain fog or difficulty concentrating, depressive symptoms, and somnolence. The researchers also discussed the respiratory, cardiac, neurological, olfactory, gastrointestinal, mental health, musculoskeletal, dermatological, and inflammatory or hematological manifestations of PASC in detail.

Furthermore, the study also examined the role of PASC in exacerbating underlying conditions in children, such as asthma, fibromyalgia, and connective tissue disorders, as well as post-infectious conditions such as MIS-C and de-novo conditions such as diabetes, autoimmune disorders, and neurological problems that could potentially develop during PASC.

Conclusions

To summarize, the review examined studies investigating the long-term consequences of SARS-CoV-2 infections in children and presented a comprehensive picture of the current understanding of PASC in children. The findings indicate that while the severity and prevalence of COVID-19 in the pediatric population were not as high as in adults, PASC does entail severe and long-lasting consequences, including the development of new autoimmune conditions and diabetes. These results highlight the need to form initiatives to further understand the susceptibility of children with underlying medical conditions to SARS-CoV-2 infections.

Journal reference:
Dr. Chinta Sidharthan

Written by

Dr. Chinta Sidharthan

Chinta Sidharthan is a writer based in Bangalore, India. Her academic background is in evolutionary biology and genetics, and she has extensive experience in scientific research, teaching, science writing, and herpetology. Chinta holds a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the Indian Institute of Science and is passionate about science education, writing, animals, wildlife, and conservation. For her doctoral research, she explored the origins and diversification of blindsnakes in India, as a part of which she did extensive fieldwork in the jungles of southern India. She has received the Canadian Governor General’s bronze medal and Bangalore University gold medal for academic excellence and published her research in high-impact journals.

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