What parents need to know about protecting kids from coronavirus

Meghan Holohan

As parents and parents-to-be hear more about the spread of coronavirus, they might wonder what that means for their families.

Does everyone need to wear a mask? Do pregnant women need to take extra precautions? When should children stay home from school?

While the news sounds scary, practicing healthy habits — such as hand washing, sneezing into the crook of the elbow, staying home from school or work when sick — remains the best way to protect yourself and others from the coronavirus.

“This is a virus that doesn't have a vaccine or any kind of treatment so the best protection is really just common sense hygiene that you would use during flu season anyway,” Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security and an infectious disease physician, told TODAY Parents. “The only way to protect children is the same as what you would do for anybody.”

Teach proper hand washing

Frequent hand washing is the best line of defense. People need to use soap and warm water and rub their hands — rub palms together and also in between fingers — vigorously for 20 seconds or for as long as a rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday.” The best way to encourage hand washing in children is by setting a good example.

“If kids see parents washing their hands all the time, they’re going to wash their hands,” Dr. Dan McGee, a pediatric hospitalist at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan, told TODAY Parents.

The water doesn’t need to be scalding hot to work. McGee recommends that parents try using tepid water so children don’t become fearful of it.

“It doesn’t have to be boiling hot water,” he said. “That won’t encourage them (to wash their hands).”

He also said while it’s important for children to clean their hands, parents shouldn’t frighten them into it with horror stories of coronavirus. Keep it simple, instead.

“Put in more generic terms like ‘You need to wash your hands to keep from getting any germs,’” he said. “We don’t want ... them to think they are going to be attacked by evil coronavirus at night when they sleep if they don’t wash their hands.”

Cough or sneeze into elbows

As for coughs or sneezes, experts recommend that people do it into their elbows, and McGee said parents should explain to their children why.

“It's important to know why you're sneezing into your elbow and not your hand,” he said. “You're doing that so you're not getting it on your hands and then laying the germs (somewhere) for someone else catch.”

Keep children home when sick

The experts say it’s also important for parents to keep their children home whenever they’re sick. Coronavirus resembles other respiratory illnesses so any kids who are under the weather should skip school.

“If your child is contagious — has a fever, coughing and sneezing a lot — they should be kept home from school regardless of whether they have the coronavirus or influenza,” Adalja said. “We do know that they can spread those viruses in the school setting.”

Pregnancy and coronavirus

While pregnant women often experience respiratory illnesses more severely than others, there are no recommendations for coronavirus prevention for expectant mothers. There’s little data on how coronavirus even behaves in pregnant women.

“It's hard to completely say exactly what the clinical course would be for a pregnant woman,” Adalja said. “We do know in general with respiratory infections that pregnant women are at increased risk for having more severe cases.”

That’s because women’s lung capacity decreases as the pregnancy continues, he added.

Masks are not necessary

While many think that a face mask might protect them from contracting coronavirus, that’s not exactly true. Not just any mask helps. In fact, only N95 respirators are effective.

“If you put a mask on if you’re sick that prevents you from spreading the germs to other people,” McGee said. “But to go out in public wearing a mask, especially the flimsy lightweight surgical mask you see people wearing, it's not going to prevent the virus from coming in contact with you.”

It can seem like little is known about coronavirus, but what experts do know about how it affects children should give them hope.

“Children tend to have very mild symptoms. They tend to be not at risk for severe complications as much as older adults are,” Adalja said. “That should be reassuring to parents.”

Girl sleeping with sickness on the bed