Why Are Social Distancing Kids Still Getting Sick?

Why are some kids still getting sick if they are have been our of school and stuck in the house for weeks because of COVID-19?

COVID-19 has kept most kids out of school for some time now. Many are also out of daycare. And few are out playing with friends.

So why are some still getting sick? What else is going on with kids stuck at home while we are all social distancing to flatten the curve.

Why Are Social Distancing Kids Still Getting Sick?

The first thought of some parents and pediatric providers upon reading this might be, wait, what, kids are still getting sick?

Flu activity is low in most of the United States.
Flu activity is low in most of the United States.

And that’s because it does seem that in addition to flattening the COVID-19 curve, staying home from school and daycare, washing hands, and general social distancing techniques has worked to keeps from getting sick with the flu and most other contagious diseases!

So while pediatric providers are available to do telemedicine appointments, it certainly isn’t business as usual, even as their days have gotten quite unusual.

Some kids are still getting sick though, and while we know what you are thinking, most probably don’t have COVID-19.

Why?

It might be because:

  1. they aren’t social distancing as well as they think they are, keeping in mind that with many diseases, people can be contagious for a few days before they show symptoms and you can sometimes catch germs from touching fomites, or objects that a sick person has recently touched. That still doesn’t mean that they have COVID-19 though. If they have contact with others, they could catch almost anything.
  2. they caught something from someone who had a disease a few weeks or months ago and is still shedding. For example, some infants can shed RSV for as long as 4 weeks after they get better. And they can shed the virus that causes hand, foot and mouth disease (HFMD) for almost two months! Human parainfluenza viruses (HPIV), a common cause of colds and croup (seal bark cough), can also shed for many months.
  3. they caught something from someone who had a viral disease that causes a lifelong latent infection with periodic reactivation and shedding. Wait, what? While herpes (cold sores) is the main disease you might think of as causing a lifelong latent infection, there are others. You may not realize this, but after getting roseola (causes a high fever for a few days, followed by a rash after the fever breaks), HHV-6 (human herpes virus-6) kind of does the same thing. The big difference is that while you shed HHV-6 in your saliva from time to time, you don’t have any symptoms. You can get other folks sick though, especially older infants, once they lose the passive immunity they got from maternal antibodies.
  4. they have a sore throat caused by a virus, allergies, or reflux, but have tonsil stones and a positive strep test because they are a strep carrier. Nearly 20% of kids are thought to be carriers of strep, which means that every time they get tested, they will be positive, whether or not they actually have strep throat. That means that you don’t have to worry about testing the dog to see if they are carrying strep…
  5. they were exposed to a disease with a long incubation period. While the incubation period (the time between getting exposed to something to when you get sick) is just a few days for many diseases, it can be several weeks or months for others. In fact, your child might not get sick until 30 to 50 days after being exposed to someone with mono!
  6. they had a virus a few weeks ago and now have Gianotti Crosti syndrome (GCS), a post-viral rash on a child’s legs, arms, and buttocks. Although GCS might linger for weeks or months, it eventually goes away on its own. Another rash, this one likely caused by reactivation of the virus that causes roseola, might have you thinking your child is covered in ringworm (how would they get that if they haven’t left the house??). Instead, they likely have pityriasis rosea.
  7. their symptoms are caused by a non-contagious infectious disease that is spread from an animal or insect and not from another person – think Lyme disease (ticks), Cat scratch disease (cats), and West Nile virus (mosquitoes), etc.
  8. they got sick (bacteria, virus, or parasite) from contaminated lake or well water, which can cause diarrhea – giardiasis, Crypto, shigellosis, norovirus,
  9. they got sick (bacteria, virus, or parasite) from eating raw or contaminated food – giardiasis, shigellosis, norovirus, E. coli, salmonellosis
  10. their symptoms are caused by a non-infectious disease, which could be anything from allergies and asthma to poison ivy or herpes zoster (shingles).

It is also possible that their symptoms are being caused by anxiety, fear, and stress, which is not unexpected as they see schools closed, people getting sick and wearing masks, and are likely unsure about what’s coming next.

Has your child been sick recently?

Do you have a pet turtle or chickens in your backyard? They could be a source for Salmonella…

Do you understand why now?

Now call your pediatric provider if you have questions and need help getting them well, especially if they seem anxious or have extra stress from being home all of the time and away from school and their friends.

You especially want to call if you think that they might actually have COVID-19. While most kids have mild symptoms or are asymptomatic, if your child has a fever, cough, and difficulty breathing, you should call your pediatric provider or seek medical attention.

More on Covid-19 Kids Getting Sick

It’s Not Always the Flu When You Get Sick During Cold and Flu Season

Flu isn’t the only virus that is going around during cold and flu season. Many others can cause flu-like illnesses, croup, bronchiolitis, or just a cold.

We hear a lot about flu season.

It typically starts in late fall, peaks in mid-to-late winter, and can continue through early spring.

Cold and Flu Season Viruses

It’s important to understand that a lot more is going on, and going around, during flu season than just the flu.

That’s why it is likely more appropriate to think of flu season as just a part of the overall cold and flu season that we see during the late fall to early spring.

During cold and flu season, in addition to the multiple strains of the flu, we see diseases caused by:

  • respiratory adenovirus – can cause bronchitis, colds, croup, viral pneumonia, pink eye, and diarrhea
  • Human metapneumovirus (HMPV) – can cause bronchiolitis, colds, and viral pneumonia
  • Human parainfluenza viruses (HPIVs) – can cause bronchiolitis, bronchitis, colds, croup, or viral pneumonia
  • rhinovirus – the classic common cold
  • Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) – can cause wheezing and bronchiolitis in younger children, but colds in older kids and adults
  • seasonal coronavirus – can cause colds, bronchitis, and viral pneumonia
  • norovirus – diarrhea and vomiting
  • rotavirus – diarrhea and vomiting, was much more common in the pre-vaccine era

That there are so many different respiratory viruses that can cause bronchiolitis, colds, croup, and flu-like illnesses helps explain why some kids get sick so many times during cold and flu season.

It also helps explain why some folks think they might have gotten the flu despite having been vaccinated, especially in a year when the flu vaccine is very effective.

Is It a Cold or the Flu?

So how do you know if you have the flu or one of these flu viruses during cold and flu season?

Signs and symptoms of the flu vs a cold.
Signs and symptoms of the flu vs a cold.

While the symptoms can be similar, flu symptoms are usually more severe and come on more suddenly.

Can’t you just get a flu test?

While rapid flu tests are fast and easy to do, they are likely not as accurate as you think.

“This variation in ability to detect viruses can result in some people who are infected with the flu having a negative rapid test result. (This situation is called a false negative test result.) Despite a negative rapid test result, your health care provider may diagnose you with flu based on your symptoms and their clinical judgment.”

CDC on Diagnosing Flu

If your pediatrician is going to diagnose your child with the flu because of their symptoms, even if they have a negative flu test, then why do the test?

Rapid flu tests are usually invalid if they are positive for A and B, but many folks are told that they have both.
Rapid flu tests are usually invalid if they are positive for A and B, but many folks are told that they have both flu virus strains.

Can you test for all of the other viruses that are going around during cold and flu season?

Tests can be done to detect most cold and flu viruses.
Tests can be done to detect most cold and flu viruses.

Sure.

The real question is should you.

Like the rapid flu test, many pediatricians can do an RSV test in their office. But like many other viruses, there is no treatment for RSV and the American Academy of Pediatrics actually recommends against routine RSV testing. Whether your child’s test is positive or negative, it is not going to change how he or she is treated.

And the other viruses? Not surprisingly, there are respiratory panels that can test for most or all of these viruses. They also usually include flu and RSV.

The problem with these tests is cost. They are not inexpensive, and again, in most cases, the results aren’t going to change how your pediatrician treats your child.

And they all involve sticking a nasal swab far up your child’s nose…

What About Strep?

While strep throat can occur year round, it does seem to be more common in the winter and spring.

And while you can certainly have two different infections at the same time, such as strep throat and the flu, it is important to remember that the rate of strep throat carriers is fairly high. These are kids who regularly test positive for strep, even though they don’t have an active group A strep infection.

During cold and flu season, if kids routinely get a “strep/flu” combo test, it is possible, or even likely, that many of the positive strep tests are simply catching these carriers.

Remember that a cough, runny nose, hoarse voice, and pink eye are not typical symptoms of strep throat and are more commonly caused by cold viruses. Adenovirus is especially notorious for causing a sore throat, fever, pink eye, runny nose, with swollen lymph nodes = pharyngoconjunctival fever.

Kids who are likely to have strep throat usually have a sore throat, with red and swollen tonsils, and may have swollen lymph nodes, fever, stomach pain, and vomiting, but won’t have typical cold symptoms.

Why does it matter?

Viral causes of a sore throat don’t need antibiotics, while a true strep infection does.

And remember that none of the other cold and flu viruses need antibiotics either, unless your child gets worse and develops a secondary bacterial infection.

What to Know About Cold and Flu Season Viruses

Flu isn’t the only virus that is going around during cold and flu season. Many others can cause flu-like illnesses, croup, bronchiolitis, or just a cold.

More on Cold and Flu Season Viruses

Understanding Strep and Why Your Kids Keep Getting Strep Throat

Sore throat infections, including strep throat, are common, but you should look for other answers besides just getting your child’s tonsils out if they get strep over and over.

Tonsillitis caused by group A streptococcus bacteria.
Tonsillitis caused by group A streptococcus bacteria. Photo courtesy of the CDC.

Does your child get strep throat so often that you are thinking about getting his tonsils out?

While it is not uncommon for kids to get strep throat a few times a year once they are in school, it is even more common to get viral sore throats.

Strep throat, which can be treated with antibiotics, is caused by the group A Streptococcus (GAS) bacteria. And while a fast or rapid test can help determine if your child has strep throat or a virus, false positive (the test is positive, but the strep bacteria isn’t really making your child sick) results can sometimes confuse the picture.

Understanding Strep Throat

Before you can begin to understand why your child might be getting strep throat over and over again, you first have to understand strep throat and the current guidelines for diagnosing and treating strep.

“Diagnostic studies for GAS pharyngitis are not indicated for children less than 3 years old because acute rheumatic fever is rare in children less than 3 years old and the incidence of streptococcal pharyngitis and the classic presentation of streptococcal pharyngitis are uncommon in this age group.”

Infectious Diseases Society of America Guidelines

Strep throat is most common in children and teens between the ages of 5 and 15 years. While it might be possible for younger and older folks to get strep, especially if someone else in the house is sick with strep throat, since they aren’t considered to be at risk for acute rheumatic fever, it isn’t typically necessary to diagnose or treat them. It may surprise you, but strep throat does go away on its own – the main reason it is treated is so you don’t later develop rheumatic fever.

“Testing for GAS pharyngitis usually is not recommended for children or adults with acute pharyngitis with clinical and epidemiological features that strongly suggest a viral etiology (eg, cough, rhinorrhea, hoarseness, and oral ulcers).”

Infectious Diseases Society of America Guidelines

The classic symptoms of strep throat can include the sudden onset of a sore throat, fever, red and swollen tonsils (tonsillitis), possibly with white patches (exudate) and small, red spots (petechiae) on the roof of the child’s mouth, and tender, swollen lymph glands in their neck.

Kids with strep throat might also have nausea, vomiting, stomach pain, a headache, and a rash (scarlet fever).

Kids with strep throat will not usually have a cough, runny nose, hoarse voice, mouth ulcers, or pink eye with their sore throat. Those are symptoms that suggest a virus is causing the sore throat and they should not usually be tested for strep. This helps to avoid an unnecessary antibiotic prescription if your child tests positive, but really has a virus.

So basically, try to avoid over-testing for strep. But if your child does have strep throat symptoms and has a positive test, get an antibiotic that will clear the strep bacteria and finish all of your child’s prescription.

Avoiding Strep and Other Infections

Can you avoid getting strep?

As with other infections, the best way to avoid strep throat is to teach your kids to:

  • wash their hands properly
  • avoid close contact with people that are sick (for strep, that means until they have been on their antibiotic for at least 24 hours)
  • avoid drinking out of other people’s cups or glasses
  • consider taking a water bottle to school instead of drinking out of the water fountains
  • not touch their eyes or put objects (fingers, pencils, clothing, etc.) in their mouth, as that helps germs get in their body
  • cover their coughs and sneezes to avoid getting others sick

Most importantly, don’t wait until someone is sick in your home or lots of kids are getting sick at school to encourage your kids to avoid getting sick. By then, it will likely be too late.

Is Your Child a Strep Carrier?

If your child continues to get strep, especially if their strep test is always positive, it is likely time to consider that they may be a strep carrier.

“We recommend that clinicians caring for patients with recurrent episodes of pharyngitis associated with laboratory evidence of GAS pharyngitis consider that they may be experiencing >1 episode of bona fide streptococcal pharyngitis at close intervals, but they should also be alert to the possibility that the patient may actually be a chronic pharyngeal GAS carrier who is experiencing repeated viral infections.”

Infectious Diseases Society of America Guidelines

What does it mean to be a strep carrier?

It simply means that the strep bacteria are living or ‘hanging out’ in the back of your child’s throat. While that sounds bad, these strep bacteria aren’t causing any problems. They aren’t making your child sick, causing any symptoms, and don’t even make your child contagious.

“…the recovery of GAS does not establish causality. The tests do not distinguish carriage of GAS in a child with pharyngitis attributable to another cause from an acute infection caused by GAS.”

“Group A Streptococci Among School-Aged Children: Clinical Characteristics and the Carrier State” Pediatrics. 2004 Nov;114(5):1212-9.

The big problem with being a strep carrier is that whenever you have a strep test, these strep carrier bacteria will make the test positive, even if they aren’t what is causing your child’s symptoms.

This is often why people get diagnosed with strep and flu or strep and mono at the same time.

If you still don’t understand strep carriers, consider that if you go to almost any school and test every child, up to 20 to 25% of the kids will test positive for strep, even though they aren’t sick and have no symptoms. They are likely just strep carriers.

“We recommend that GAS carriers do not ordinarily justify efforts to identify them nor do they generally require antimicrobial therapy because GAS carriers are unlikely to spread GAS pharyngitis to their close contacts and are at little or no risk for developing suppurative or nonsuppurative complications (eg, acute rheumatic fever).”

Infectious Diseases Society of America Guidelines

What kind of efforts are they talking about? We sometimes hear about doctors ordering antibody tests, doing rapid strep tests and cultures on kids after they finish their antibiotics, testing everyone who lives in the house, or even testing the family dog.

None of this is usually necessary.

One thing that can be helpful is that if your pediatrician thinks that your child is a strep carrier, then instead of the more typical penicillin or amoxil antibiotics, they might treat your child with a stronger antibiotic, like clindamycin. This can help ‘knock out’ the carrier bacteria.

And then learn to be much more selective about getting strep tests, avoiding them if your child has more classic viral symptoms, like a cough and runny nose.

In addition to the idea of being a chronic carrier, there are other theories about why kids get recurrent strep throat infections, including:

  • antibiotic resistance – although this is thought to be rare or non-existent when it comes to the GAS bacteria and penicillin, amoxicillin, and cephalosporins. There is some resistance between azithromycin and strep, which is why it should only be prescribed if your child is allergic to the other antibiotics that are used to treat strep throat.
  • noncompliance – not finishing your antibiotic or not taking it as prescribed
  • influence of other bacteria – there are theories that other bacteria may be inactivating penicillin or amoxicillin (so you need a stronger antibiotic) or even that other beneficial bacteria help to kill the GAS bacteria, but may be gone if your child is frequently on antibiotics
  • you are starting antibiotics too quickly – some people think that if you don’t wait a few days and let the body start to fight the strep infection on its own, then it is more likely to come back

Or if your child had true strep throat symptoms, got well quickly after being on an antibiotic, but then got strep (with classic strep symptoms) again quickly, it is possible that it is just a new infection.

“We do not recommend tonsillectomy solely to reduce the frequency of GAS pharyngitis.”

Infectious Diseases Society of America Guidelines

If it is happening over and over again, consider the possibility that your child is a strep carrier and teach him or her how to avoid getting sick as much as possible.

Why not just get your child’s tonsils out? The problem is that many studies have shown that while this might help for a year or so, after that, these kids start getting strep just as much as they did before. So unless your child also has sleep apnea or has had complications of strep infections, like a peritonsillar abscess, you probably shouldn’t rush into a tonsillectomy.

What To Know About Recurrent Strep Throat Infections

Some other fast facts to know include that:

  • having tonsillitis does not automatically mean that your child has strep. Remember that viruses are an even more common cause of sore throats.
  • you can’t tell if someone has strep just by looking at their tonsils. Even having pus (white stuff) on their tonsils doesn’t automatically mean strep. Viruses can do that too. That’s why a rapid strep test, with a backup culture for negative tests, is important to make the diagnosis.
  • throwing out your child’s tooth brush every time they have strep isn’t necessary, after all, you don’t do that after they have other infections, do you? Instead, encourage your kids to routinely rinse their toothbrush after each use and replace it every 3 to 4 months.

Hopefully you have a better understanding of strep throat now.

Sore throat infections, including strep throat, are common, but remember to look for other answers besides just getting your child’s tonsils out if they get strep over and over.

More Information About Strep Throat