COVID-19 Publications

Illness duration and symptom profile in symptomatic UK school-aged children tested for SARS-CoV-2

Tags: | August 12th, 2021

Authors: E Molteni, CH Sudre, LS Canas, SS Bhopal, RC Hughes, M Antonelli, B Murray, K Kläser, E Kerfoot, L Chen, J Deng, C Hu, Somesh Selvachandran, Kenneth Read, Joan Capdevila Pujol, Prof Alexander Hammers, Prof Tim D Spector, Prof Sebastien Ourselin, Claire J Steves, Marc Modat, Michael Absoud, Prof Emma L Duncan

Published in: The Lancet



Background In children, SARS-CoV-2 infection is usually asymptomatic or causes a mild illness of short duration. Persistent illness has been reported; however, its prevalence and characteristics are unclear. We aimed to determine illness duration and characteristics in symptomatic UK school-aged children tested for SARS-CoV-2 using data from the COVID Symptom Study, one of the largest UK citizen participatory epidemiological studies to date.

Methods In this prospective cohort study, data from UK school-aged children (age 5–17 years) were reported by an adult proxy. Participants were voluntary, and used a mobile application (app) launched jointly by Zoe Limited and King’s College London. Illness duration and symptom prevalence, duration, and burden were analysed for children testing positive for SARS-CoV-2 for whom illness duration could be determined, and were assessed overall and for younger (age 5–11 years) and older (age 12–17 years) groups. Children with longer than 1 week between symptomatic reports on the app were excluded from analysis. Data from symptomatic children testing negative for SARS-CoV-2, matched 1:1 for age, gender, and week of testing, were also assessed.

Findings 258 790 children aged 5–17 years were reported by an adult proxy between March 24, 2020, and Feb 22, 2021, of whom 75 529 had valid test results for SARS-CoV-2. 1734 children (588 younger and 1146 older children) had a positive SARS-CoV-2 test result and calculable illness duration within the study timeframe (illness onset between Sept 1, 2021, and Jan 24, 2021). The most common symptoms were headache (1079 [62·2%] of 1734 children), and fatigue (954 [55·0%] of 1734 children). Median illness duration was 6 days (IQR 3–11) versus 3 days (2–7) in children testing negative, and was positively associated with age (Spearman’s rank-order rs 0·19, p<0·0001). Median illness duration was longer for older children (7 days, IQR 3–12) than younger children (5 days, 2–9). 77 (4·4%) of 1734 children had illness duration of at least 28 days, more commonly in older than younger children (59 [5·1%] of 1146 older children vs 18 [3·1%] of 588 younger children; p=0·046). The commonest symptoms experienced by these children during the first 4 weeks of illness were fatigue (65 [84·4%] of 77), headache (60 [77·9%] of 77), and anosmia (60 [77·9%] of 77); however, after day 28 the symptom burden was low (median 2 symptoms, IQR 1–4) compared with the first week of illness (median 6 symptoms, 4–8). Only 25 (1·8%) of 1379 children experienced symptoms for at least 56 days. Few children (15 children, 0·9%) in the negatively tested cohort had symptoms for at least 28 days; however, these children experienced greater symptom burden throughout their illness (9 symptoms, IQR 7·7–11·0 vs 8, 6–9) and after day 28 (5 symptoms, IQR 1·5–6·5 vs 2, 1–4) than did children who tested positive for SARS-CoV-2.

Interpretation Although COVID-19 in children is usually of short duration with low symptom burden, some children with COVID-19 experience prolonged illness duration. Reassuringly, symptom burden in these children did not increase with time, and most recovered by day 56. Some children who tested negative for SARS-CoV-2 also had persistent and burdensome illness. A holistic approach for all children with persistent illness during the pandemic is appropriate.


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