Children hospitalized with COVID-19 have higher risk of neurological symptoms, study finds

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Experts say children’s COVID-19 symptoms may manifest differently than adults’ symptoms

A new study conducted by researchers from the University of Pittsburgh explored how children can be affected by COVID-19. Their findings showed that when children are hospitalized with the virus, they may have an increased risk of neurological symptoms, including headaches or seizures. 

“The SARS-CoV-2 virus can affect pediatric patients in different ways: it can cause acute disease, where symptomatic illness comes on soon after infection, or children may develop an inflammatory condition called MIS-C weeks after clearing the virus,” explained researcher Dr. Ericka Fink.

Children’s neurological risks

For the study, the researchers analyzed data from nearly 1,500 children who were hospitalized with COVID-19 in 30 hospitals across the country. The team evaluated the children’s medical records to better understand how the virus affected them. 

They learned that 44% of the children developed at least one neurological-related symptom as a result of COVID-19. Another 14% of the children were also diagnosed with multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C) after becoming infected with the virus. Headaches and acute encephalopathy were the two most common neurological symptoms for all of the children involved in the study. 

Children who developed MIS-C had a higher risk of neurological symptoms, and they were more likely than other children to develop multiple neurological symptoms. 

“Thankfully, mortality rates in children are low for both acute SARS-CoV-2 and MIS-C,” Dr. Fink said. “But this study shows that the frequency of neurological manifestations is high – and it may actually be higher than what we found because these symptoms are not always documented in the medical record or assessable. For example, we can’t know if a baby is having a headache.” 

The team hopes to do more work in this area to better understand if these neurological symptoms are likely to impact children long-term. 

“Another long-term goal of this study is to build a database that tracks neurological manifestations over time – not just for SARS-CoV-2, but for other types of infections as well,” said Dr. Fink. “Some countries have excellent databases that allow them to easily track and compare children who are hospitalized, but we don’t have such a resource in the U.S.” 

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