Owen, 11, was the last in his family to get COVID-19. While everyone else recovered within two weeks, his symptoms lingered. Over the next few weeks his vision blurred, his skin turned pale, he began forgetting things, and every night he experienced excruciating pain in his chest and abdomen. “You just didn’t know if he was going to be with you tomorrow,” says Owen’s mother, Susie.
An eye exam, a chest X-ray, and a heart monitoring test called an echocardiogram were all normal. The doctors ruled out multisystem inflammatory syndrome, a rare but serious condition linked to COVID. Only when a friend of Owen’s mother suggested that her son might have long COVID did she consider the possibility. “Neither my husband nor I had information on hand about long COVID,” says Susie, who asked that we don’t use her last name to protect her son’s privacy. Owen’s pediatrician hadn’t mentioned the possibility of long COVID or specific steps to combat his lingering symptoms, she says.
Long COVID is less common in children than in adults, but more researchers have been trying to understand the condition in kids and determine who might be at risk as the pandemic has continued. Currently there are only about a dozen pediatric long COVID clinics in the U.S., according to a list maintained by a support group called long COVID Families. “Early in the pandemic there was a thought that children were somehow sort of immune to COVID,” says Laura Malone, a pediatric neurologist at the Kennedy Krieger Institute’s Pediatric Post-COVID-19 Rehabilitation Clinic in Baltimore, Maryland. But that notion changed, particularly after Omicron’s arrival. “Now there’s more recognition that a lot of children do well and recover after a COVID infection,” she says, “but there’s a need to remain vigilant and be aware that a subset of children can continue to have some difficulty.”