There's no doubt that the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) is scary. Here’s everything you need to know about the disease that's infected millions of people worldwide.

Check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for up-to-date information on statistics, disease spread, and travel advisories.

Almost two years into the coronavirus pandemic in the United States, parents are facing new questions about the virus every day. Everyone, of course, is focused on kids' safety and closely watching as the number of cases rise again across the country, thanks to the highly transmissible Omicron variant.

More than 7,890,756 children have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), and they represent 17.4 percent of all coronavirus cases. Thankfully, children rarely experience severe symptoms of COVID-19. While pediatric hospitalizations are on the rise due to Omicron, the AAP says that between 0.1 and 1.8 percent of all children diagnosed with COVID-19 were hospitalized, based on data compiled by states. And although some children have tragically died from the virus, only between 0 and 0.03 percent of child coronavirus cases are fatal.

That said, the highly contagious nature of COVID-19 means even people who get a mild form of the virus could spread it to someone who could experience more serious symptoms or dangerous side effects. And with the virus still spreading around the country, public health officials urge parents to take precautions to keep their families safe.

Here's everything parents need to know about COVID-19, from what it is and how to prevent your kids from getting it to what to do if someone in your family has been exposed or tests positive

What Is the Coronavirus?

Coronaviruses are common among animals like bats, camels, and cats, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But seven varieties, called "zoonotic viruses," can be passed from animals to humans, and then from humans to other humans. These diseases often lead to respiratory symptoms that range from mild to severe.

The new coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2)—and the disease it causes, COVID-19—is novel (never seen before). Officials have traced the novel coronavirus back to a seafood and live animal market in Wuhan, China. The CDC reported that COVID-19 is a betacoronavirus, which means it originated in bats. It may have spread to another animal before making its way to humans—but that information isn't known yet. 

While experts still need to conduct more research, they say the current COVID-19 coronavirus has similarities to both SARS and MERS. New variants have also been emerging around the world.

Travellers family wear masks to avoid transmission of coronavirus upon arrival at Terminal 2 of Roissy Charles de Gaulle Airport in Roissy, France, on February 29, 2020.
Travellers family wear masks to avoid transmission of coronavirus upon arrival at Terminal 2 of Roissy Charles de Gaulle Airport in Roissy, France, on February 29, 2020. (Photo by Emeric Fohlen/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
| Credit: Emeric Fohlen/NurPhoto via Getty Images

How the Coronavirus Spreads

Officials have determined that the novel coronavirus likely has animal-to-human origins, but it's spreading between people now. COVID-19 is mainly contracted through respiratory droplets from coughing, sneezing talking, breathing, singing, etc. These droplets can travel up to six feet, and they can become inhaled or deposited on the mucus membranes of those with close contact to the infected individual. That's why social distancing and wearing masks are key to preventing COVID-19 spread.

You might also catch COVID-19 by touching a surface that has the virus on it and then touching your eyes, nose, or mouth—although this isn't the primary mode of transmission. A March 2020 study from National Institutes of Health, CDC, UCLA, and Princeton University scientists suggests that the coronavirus can survive for three hours in the air, four hours on copper, 24 hours on cardboard, and two to three days on stainless steel and plastic.

The CDC confirmed that airborne transmission is also possible; this means people can get infected from small droplets and particles that linger in the air for minutes to hours. This mostly happens in "enclosed spaces that had inadequate ventilation," according to the CDC.

Along with the U.S., nearly every other country has confirmed coronavirus cases. Check out the CDC's live global map for updated information. 

Coronavirus Symptoms in Kids and Adults

COVID-19 has caused widespread panic among parents—partly because its symptoms are almost identical to influenza, says Miryam Wahrman, Ph.D., biology professor and director of the microbiology research lab at William Paterson University in Wayne, New Jersey, and author of The Hand Book: Surviving in a Germ-Filled World.

The CDC says that symptoms usually appear within two to 14 days of exposure to the virus. The coronavirus may look very similar to seasonal influenza, since both illnesses affect the respiratory tract. "The only way to differentiate is to do a clinical test," explains Dr. Wahrman. 

According to the CDC, common coronavirus symptoms include:

  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Muscle pain
  • Headache
  • Sore throat
  • New loss of taste or smell
  • Digestive issues (nausea, vomiting, diarrhea)
  • Congestion or runny nose
  • Fatigue

The severity of symptoms will vary between individuals. Some people get severe respiratory distress that leads to death, while others have minimal side effects. Experts have also reported a strange disease called multisystem inflammatory syndrome (MIS-C) with ties to COVID-19 affecting children across the country. According to Kathleen DiCaprio, M.D., an infectious disease expert from Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine in New York City, who helped develop the vaccine for the Ebola virus, "more severe cases seem to be in patients who are older and have pre-existing medical conditions."

How Dangerous Is COVID-19?

Since COVID-19 is a new disease, unvaccinated people don't have any antibodies to combat it, according to Sharon Nachman, M.D., Chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Stony Brook Children's Hospital. "If you're exposed, you most likely will get the illness." 

While most people have mild symptoms, some get serious side effects that require hospitalization, and a minority have critical symptoms that need intensive care. Severe cases of the coronavirus can cause respiratory distress and death, especially in older adults and those with compromised immune systems.

Parents might rest easier knowing that the coronavirus doesn't seem to impact babies and children as severely. Those that do contract the disease mostly have mild, cold-like symptoms (although severe complications are also possible). This might change with the emergence of new variants, however.

Do Pregnant Women Need to Worry?

You may have heard reports about newborns who tested positive for the coronavirus. Many hospitals have even banned visitors—outside of one support person—during childbirth. Experts think that COVID-19 might pass from Mother to Baby through the placenta in certain situations, but evidence is pointing to SARS-CoV-2 not spreading through breast milk, which is why the CDC says it's likely safe for mothers infected with COVID-19 to breastfeed.

What's more, the CDC reports that pregnant women may suffer from more severe symptoms of COVID-19, so they should be extra diligent about following the precautionary measures outlined below.

One thing pregnant people should do is discuss whether or not getting the COVID-19 vaccine is the right choice for them. Experts urge pregnant and lactating people get vaccinated and promising research is even pointing to antibodies passing on to babies.

How to Prevent Coronavirus

Vaccination is the best way to prevent severe illness, hospitalization, and death. Other important safety measures include practicing social distancing, wearing a mask in public, and maintaining proper hand hygiene. "Wash your hands appropriately with soap and water as needed, which reduces your risk of picking up germs that cause disease," says Dr. Wahrman. It's especially important to wash your hands before eating or touching your eyes, nose, and mouth. Scrub with soap and water for at least 20 seconds; Dr. DiCaprio recommends that kids sing "Happy Birthday" to hit the time mark.

Avoid contact with anyone exhibiting signs of illness. If you're sick, the CDC recommends staying home. Cover your mouth when you sneeze or cough, and disinfect your home frequently. Also get the COVID-19 vaccine when it's available to you.

We asked experts to answer a few other prevention questions for parents, and here's what they had to say:

What should I know about the coronavirus vaccine?

COVID-19 vaccines from drugmakers Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson are the first to be authorized for distribution in the U.S. and rollout has begun. Though some Americans—namely health care workers, essential workers, and some of the high-risk population—received their shots first, the majority of the country is now eligible for vaccination. Indeed, the FDA approved Pfizer for emergency use in kids 5 years and older, and they're expected to extend eligibility to younger kids in the near future.

Should my child wear a face mask?

The CDC has released recommendations urging those 2 years old and up to wear face masks in an effort to slow COVID-19 spread, especially since it can be transmitted by those with no symptoms at all. The CDC updated their guidance with new information: Wearing a mask can not only help to protect others from coronavirus transmission, it can help protect you as well.

"Adopting universal masking policies can help avert future lockdowns, especially if combined with other non-pharmaceutical interventions such as social distancing, hand hygiene, and adequate ventilation," the CDC said.

The organization previously stated that vaccinated individuals don't need to wear face masks in most situations, indoors or outdoors, except when required by law. Now, with the rise of the highly transmissible Delta and Omicron variants, the CDC is recommending that vaccinated people wear masks indoors in areas with "substantial or high transmission" of the virus.

How is America dealing with the coronavirus?

WHO, CDC, and state health partners are taking every effort to control the disease. Here are a few steps that have been taken:

  • President Joe Biden unveiled a new national coronavirus response plan that included mask-wearing policies, fixing vaccine distribution issues, travel restrictions, and ramping up testing.
  • Medical organizations around the world have been working on vaccines, treatments, and testing options. COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson were the first to be approved for emergency use in the U.S. and every American 5 and up is now eligible to receive a vaccine. Younger children might receive approval within the next several weeks.
  • Vaccine booster shots are being recommended for everyone 12 and up, at least five months after the primary vaccine series, which should help combat waning vaccine immunity over time.
  • The CDC advises that all unvaccinated travelers avoid global and domestic "nonessential travel," but has released new guidance saying fully vaccinated individuals can travel while taking precautions like wearing a mask, social distancing, and washing their hands often. All international travelers must receive a negative test before entering the U.S., regardless of vaccination status.
  • After closing in March 2020 and introducing a mix of virtual, hybrid, and in-person education for the 2020-2021 season, data is now pointing to schools being safe to reopen again. The Biden administration is following CDC guidance on how to do that safely. The CDC also recommends that students, teachers, and staff wear masks in school.
  • For unvaccinated people, the CDC recommends the use of face masks in public settings where social distancing might be difficult. Vaccinated people should wear masks indoors where COVID-19 transmission is high, thanks to the Delta and Omicron variants. President Biden is mandating masks be worn on federal property, and on public transportation—including on airplanes, buses, and trains.
  • Coronavirus testing is now available across the country. At-home COVID tests are also available.

What To Do if You've Been Exposed to the Coronavirus

Americans with potential exposure have been asked to get tested three to five days after exposure—even if they don't show symptoms. The CDC has also updated guidance to shorten the recommended quarantine time for unvaccinated individuals—or for people who are vaccinated but have not yet received a booster—exposed to COVID-19 from 10 days to five days, followed by five days of wearing a mask.

The CDC says that vaccinated people who have received their booster do not need to quarantine following an exposure, but should wear a mask for 10 days.

"For all those exposed, best practice would also include a test for SARS-CoV-2 at day 5 after exposure," the CDC advises. "If symptoms occur, individuals should immediately quarantine until a negative test confirms symptoms are not attributable to COVID-19."

What To Do if You Think You Have the Coronavirus

Do you have fever, cough, shortness of breath, or other symptoms of COVID-19? The CDC
"recommends that anyone with any signs or symptoms of COVID-19 get tested, regardless of vaccination status or prior infection. If you get tested because you have symptoms or were potentially exposed to the virus, you should stay away from others pending test results and follow the advice of your health care provider or a public health professional."

There is currently no recommended treatment regime for the coronavirus. Your health care provider will inform you on next steps, but the CDC suggests treating the illness similarly to the flu. You should get lots of rest and fluids, take fever-reducing medication, and use a humidifier.

What To Do If You Test Positive for COVID-19

If you or your kids do receive a positive test result, isolation is recommend.

"Given what we currently know about COVID-19 and the Omicron variant, CDC is shortening the recommended time for isolation from 10 days for people with COVID-19 to 5 days, if asymptomatic, followed by 5 days of wearing a mask when around others," the CDC says. "The change is motivated by science demonstrating that the majority of SARS-CoV-2 transmission occurs early in the course of illness, generally in the 1-2 days prior to onset of symptoms and the 2-3 days after."

For people with symptoms, a five-day isolation is still recommended followed by five days of wearing a mask around others as long as their symptoms are improving. People who have a fever should stay home until fever-free.