Children and Teenagers with Long-Term COVID

sick teen covered up on coach looking at her phone

We have recently identified another slight surge of COVID in our country. It reminded me of the hundreds of thousands of children and teenagers who are still suffering with long COVID symptoms such as rashes, memory problems, limb and stomach pain and weight loss among other symptoms. Some of these youth have found themselves struggling academically, dropping out of school, delaying college and trying to find resources to help them overcome these difficult physical symptoms.

Long COVID is hard to track. Sometimes substitute diagnosis have confused doctors and students and as we know, there is no known treatment or cure. Research estimates that anywhere from 4% to 25% of the 15.6 million American children and adolescents who have had a COVID-19 infection will develop some form of long COVID.

In a nationwide study of long COVID in adults, published in JAMA in May 2023, researchers at major medical universities and Massachusetts General Hospital found that the most common symptoms are post-exertional malaise (a significant worsening of symptoms, or development of new ones, after minor physical or mental effort), fatigue, dizziness, heart palpitations, brain fog and gastrointestinal issues.

“The most common complaints we see are profound fatigue that interferes with daily life, post-exertional fatigue and brain fog,” said Victoria Brown, a social worker with Boston Children’s Hospital’s pediatric post-COVID clinic. She said that about 75% of the kids that come into the long COVID clinic are generally healthy, have no preexisting conditions and have seen their lives significantly affected.

Often these students manifest psychological symptoms related to their physical condition. For that reason, some students are labelled with a psychological diagnosis when the root cause may be long COVID. This is important because the interventions utilized to help them may not help at all if this is a physical condition that is chronic. 

Sammie McFarland, the founder of U.K.-based charity Long COVID Kids, said that attitude is fueling diagnoses of functional neurological disorders, a blanket term that suggests psychological problems are causing physical symptoms. “You get that diagnosis and it’s like you’ve fallen off the planet,” McFarland said, “There’s no further support, no ongoing tests, no review process.” 

Georgia Treadway, a 16-year-old with long COVID from Oregon, said her day-to-day functioning is unpredictable. She spent over six months following a COVID infection in late 2021 entirely in bed, barely able to attend school. She recovered somewhat over the summer but would relapse when she tried to go back to classes.

“Just because I’m fine one day doesn’t mean I’m better,” Treadway said. “It means I’ve saved up enough energy to act normal for a short time.” Her school told her she had missed too many days to graduate. This past spring, she dropped out, and is now pursuing a GED diploma.

In guidelines released in July 2021, the U.S. Department of Education said that students with long COVID are protected under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which require that public schools accommodate kids with disabilities.

This whole issue is a significant one because students are eligible for support from their schools but they first need to be diagnosed accurately. If we are not aware of the impact of long COVID in our kids of if they are not diagnosed properly their trajectory for treatment could be more frustrating than helpful. This is one of those pandemic consequences that continues to impact thousands of our youth.

For more information on this important topic go to Youth Today.

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