COVID-19 and Age – Infection in Children vs. Seniors

Nick Rosen, MD
Medically reviewed by Nick Rosen, MD
Asian man and granddaughter wearing face masks

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to evolve, more is being learned about the highly contagious respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus known as SARS-CoV-2. In particular, scientists are studying the varying effects of COVID-19 on different age groups. Although there are numerous factors at play, researchers have discovered a distinct spectrum of disease severity between children and seniors. Specifically, the risk for severe illness is known to increase with age, with older adults at the highest risk.

The Spectrum of Severity of COVID-19

After contracting COVID-19, some people have only mild symptoms, if any, and recover fully within a few days or weeks. However, others become severely ill and may require hospitalization, intensive care, and/or a ventilator to help them breathe. And what about when COVID-19 is over? More than four weeks after first being infected, some people experience post-COVID conditions, which can be new, returning, or ongoing health problems. It is still unclear when, or even if, these individuals will recover from what is now being referred to as “long COVID.”

Older people and those who have an underlying medical condition—such as lung disease, heart disease, asthma, diabetes, obesity, or cancer—are especially vulnerable to becoming severely ill from COVID-19 and more likely than their younger counterparts to experience post-COVID conditions. And the likelihood of having a chronic health condition increases substantially with age—a double whammy for the elderly in terms of COVID-19 risk.

Why Are Seniors Disproportionately Affected by COVID-19?

Experts believe the severity of COVID-19 in children and seniors varies due to age-related differences in the immune response. During the aging process, some level of function is lost in all bodily systems and organs. The immune system—the body’s first line of defense against infection—changes in two key ways: First, normal immune function gradually declines. A weakened immune system is less effective at fighting off harmful invaders, such as viruses and bacteria. Therefore, older adults are more susceptible to all types of infection, including COVID-19.

Second, as an aging immune system gears up to fight off an infection, such as COVID-19, it is more likely to overreact and produce too many infection-fighting chemicals. This phenomenon, which is known as a “cytokine storm,” can cause chronic inflammation throughout the body that can lead to severe illness as well as tissue and organ damage.

Why Do Children React Differently to COVID-19?

Anyone can become infected with SARS-CoV-2, including children. Many young people who contract COVID-19 experience mild symptoms or no symptoms at all, mainly due to the effectiveness of a young and robust immune system. As compared to adults and seniors, a child’s risk of becoming severely ill is much lower (although children with an underlying medical condition are at heightened risk). But thus far in the pandemic, children have been less affected by COVID-19 than their older counterparts.

Additionally, some experts believe there may be another reason why children are more resistant to the effects of COVID-19 than seniors. Namely, other coronaviruses are prevalent in the environment, many of which cause respiratory illnesses that are particularly common among children, such as the common cold. Children are exposed to germs all the time at daycare centers, in the classroom, on the playground, at camp, and in other places. And they are more likely than adults to touch germy surfaces, then touch their face, which is one of the primary ways disease-causing germs are spread. Exposure to other coronaviruses may prime the immune system to provide some level of protection against COVID-19.

COVID-19 Preventive Measures for People of All Ages

It is important for everyone—regardless of age—to take steps to protect themselves from contracting COVID-19 and spreading the virus to others, and it is especially so for seniors and those who live with, visit, or provide care for them. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), some highly effective preventive measures you can take include:

  • Getting fully vaccinated and receiving any booster shots recommended by your physician
  • Wearing a cloth face mask that covers your nose and mouth whenever you are in a public place
  • Practicing social distancing (maintaining a physical distance of at least 6 feet between yourself and others)
  • Washing your hands thoroughly and often
  • Covering your coughs and sneezes with a clean tissue or your elbow

Also, try to limit your interactions with others as much as possible. According to the CDC, the more people you interact with, the more closely you interact with them, and the longer that interaction, the more likely you are to contract or spread COVID-19.

DispatchHealth Offers Mobile COVID-19 Testing and Treatment

If you have COVID-19 symptoms and suspect that you are infected, you can be tested and treated in the comfort and privacy of your own home. Within a few hours of your request, an experienced DispatchHealth team will arrive at your door wearing protective gear, including N95 masks, gowns, gloves, and shoe coverings. We will promptly assess your health and provide appropriate testing and treatment services using fully sanitized equipment. In addition to COVID-19, we can test you for flu, strep throat, and mononucleosis on the spot. We have nearly all of the capabilities of an emergency room, and more capabilities than an urgent care center.

If you would like to benefit from our on-demand healthcare services, contact DispatchHealth today.

Sources

DispatchHealth relies only on authoritative sources, including medical associations, research institutions, and peer-reviewed medical studies.

Sources referenced in this article:

  1. https://www.cdc.gov/aging/covid19/covid19-older-adults.html
  2. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/faq.html
  3. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/coronavirus/in-depth/coronavirus-in-babies-and-children/art-20484405
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