Has your child got COVID, a cold or flu? How to tell – and what to do next

Use our symptom checker chart to help you work out which illness your child's likely to have – and which symptoms mean you'll need to isolate and get a COVID test

mother with ill child

Your child isn’t well. They have a sore throat and a bit of a temperature. How can you tell if they’ve just got a cold or if it’s flu or if it’s COVID-19?

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We’re now firmly heading into winter – with all the coughs, colds, sore throats, ear aches, tummy bugs (and more) that inevitably come with colder weather. Even in a normal year (oh, how we miss normal years!), most children can be snot monsters pretty much from September to May. So it’s not always easy to work out whether your poorly child just has a dose of the usual winter sniffles or has actually caught the coronavirus.

To help you, we’ve compiled a symptom checker chart (below), where you can compare the different symptoms of a cold, the flu and corona. But before we go any further, let’s remember that, of every demographic, children seem to do the best with Covid 19. They are most likely to either be asymptomatic or to have only a very mild illness.

csymptoms checker
Illustration: MFM/Sabrina Sahota. Sources: WHO, CDC, Covid Symptom Study

As you can see from our symptom checker chart, corona rarely comes with a runny nose!

The main symptoms of Covid 19 are cough, fever and loss of taste/smell – these are the “official” symptoms that require you to get a test. Your child does not need to have all 3 of those symptoms;, if they have any 1 of them, they need to be tested.

I get it. It is frustrating – especially if they have had a cold for a few days and then start coughing, or if they get a temperature along with a tummy upset but it doesn’t matter. You don’t know that it is NOT Covid, so if they have any of the symptoms, you must isolate and test
Dr Philippa Kaye, expert family GP

It’s also worth knowing that, according to research by the King’s College London academics behind the Covid Symptom Study app, children who test positive for coronavirus also show symptoms of fatigue, headache, sore throat and loss of appetite.

So when does my child need to isolate? And when should they have a test?

To be clear, if your child develops a fever, a cough or a loss of taste or smell they – and your entire household – must isolate at home.

  • If you do not get a test, the child (or person affected with the symptoms) must stay at home for 10 days, and the entire rest of the household must stay at home for 14 days, whether or not they have symptoms themselves.
  • If you do get a test – by going on the NHS website or calling 119 – you must all stay isolated at home until the test result is back.

If the test result is negative, then everyone can go on their way as normal, though, of course, don’t send your child back to school if they are still unwell.

If the test result is positive, then the child must stay at home for the full 10 days and rest of the household for 14 days. If someone else in the house then gets symptoms, they must then stay at home for a further 10 days. So if your child has corona and then you get symptoms on day 10 of your quarantine, you must stay in isolation for another 10 days.

If my child tests positive, should I get a test too? And the rest of the family?

No, unless they’re also showing symptoms. There is no need or point in members of the household without symptoms getting tested. Even if the test is negative, you don’t know that you are going to stay negative – you could develop symptoms any time up to the end of the 14 day isolation period, so you must stay at home.

What if someone in my child’s bubble at nursery or school tests positive? Do all the family need to isolate?

If someone in your child’s bubble at nursery tests positive, or you are contacted by track and trace, ONLY the person affected stays at home.

So say you have 3 children, aged 1, 5 and 7 and your 1-year-old’s nursery carer tests positive, only your 1 year old will have to stay at home (obviously with an adult to look after them!)  Your other 2 children will still be able to return to school.

Again, there is no point testing your 1-year-old at this point as, even if they are negative, they could develop corona in the following 14 days, so must stay at home.

It is confusing, I know, but all the information is on the government and NHS websites.

My child has coronavirus. What do I do if they get really ill?

Extremely, extremely rarely children can become very unwell with coronavirus. As always, if you are concerned about your child – especially if you cannot keep their fever down, if they aren’t drinking, if they are struggling to breathe or you think something is very wrong – please, please get urgent medical help. The NHS is open if your child needs help.

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About our expert, Dr Philippa Kaye

Dr Philippa Kaye works as a GP in both NHS and private practice. She attended Downing College, Cambridge, then took medical studies at Guy’s, King’s and St Thomas’s medical schools in London, training in paediatrics, gynaecology, care of the elderly, acute medicine, psychiatry and general practice. Dr Philippa has also written a number of books, including ones on child health, diabetes in childhood and adolescence. She is a mum of 3.

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