My 4-year-old daughter is pretty tough when it comes to medical procedures. The flu shot? Not even a flinch. Stitches in her forehead? No big deal. Years earlier, she calmly watched as a nurse pricked her finger and squeezed the blood, drop by drop, into a tiny vial to test it for lead.
But the Covid test was different.
In early September, just before her preschool reopened, she began sneezing and had a sore throat. When her congestion worsened, we knew that she needed to get a coronavirus test. But as the nurse approached her, holding a long stick with a brush on the end resembling a pipe cleaner, she covered her face and backed away. In the end, two people had to hold her down. She screamed as the swab activated her lacrimal reflex, bringing tears to her eyes. It was over quickly, but she cried for half an hour afterward and insisted that she would never visit another doctor again. She now refers to that probe as “the needle.”
In late December she needed another test for her preschool, but this time she wasn’t sick. With the memory of her last experience still fresh in my mind, I immediately started researching. Were there less invasive tests to consider? If so, how would we find one? Would it be accurate enough? And was there an ideal way to prepare a squeamish young child who was averse to getting tested?
As it turned out, none of these questions had simple answers. So I consulted with five doctors and two of the largest urgent care providers in the United States to learn more.
How do I know if my child needs a test?
There are four main reasons a child might need to be tested:
They have symptoms
They have been exposed to someone infected with the virus
Their school, day care or a hospital requires it
They need it as a precaution before and after traveling
If your child has any symptoms of Covid — even mild ones like a runny nose or a sore throat — it’s a good idea for them to get tested and stay home, said Dr. Stanley Spinner, chief medical officer and vice president of Texas Children’s Pediatrics, the largest pediatric primary care group in the country, and Texas Children’s Urgent Care.
“We have seen, time and time again, kids with very mild symptoms with no known exposures who get tested with our very accurate PCR and sure enough, they come back positive,” Dr. Spinner said.
If your child has been in close contact with someone who tested positive for Covid-19 — even if your child does not have any symptoms — they should get tested, the experts said. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention define close contact as spending at least 15 minutes within six feet of someone who has the coronavirus, or having any type of direct physical contact with an infected person, including kissing or hugging.
If your child is in school or day care, those institutions may have rules on when they must be tested, and how.
It’s safest to stay home, but if you and your children must travel, the C.D.C. recommends getting tested one to three days before your trip and then again three to five days after your trip.
If you’re still unsure if your child needs a test, call their pediatrician, said Dr. Kristin Moffitt, an infectious disease specialist at Boston Children’s Hospital. You can also take the C.D.C.’s clinical assessment tool, which can be used for any family member, including children.
Which types of tests are available for kids?
Virus testing for children is, for the most part, the same as it is for adults. The Food and Drug Administration has authorized the emergency use of two basic categories of diagnostic test. The most sensitive ones are the molecular PCR tests, which detect the genetic material of the virus and can take days to deliver results (some locations offer results in as little as a day). The second type of test, the antigen test, hunts for fragments of proteins that are found on or within the coronavirus. Antigen tests typically yield results quickly, within 15 minutes, but can be less sensitive than the molecular tests.
The way your provider collects your sample can vary. For instance, regardless of whether you get a PCR test or an antigen test, the collection method could be any of the following: nasopharyngeal swab (the long swab with a brush at the end that reaches all the way up the nose toward the throat); a shorter swab that is inserted about an inch into the nostrils; a long swab of the tonsils at the back of the throat; or a short swab swizzled on the gums and cheeks. The new saliva tests, which are still being vetted, require you to drool into a sterilized container, which could be difficult for young children.
FastMed Urgent Care, which has a network of more than 100 clinics in Arizona, North Carolina and Texas, currently uses a long swab to perform the rapid antigen test and a short swab for the PCR test, said Dr. Lane Tassin, one of the company’s chief medical officers. But MedExpress, a different urgent care group with clinics in 16 states, tests all patients with the shorter nasal swab when doing either PCR or antigen tests at its nearly 200 urgent care centers, said Jane Trombetta, the company’s chief clinical officer.
Which diagnostic test should my child get?
The type of test that your child gets will largely depend on what is available in your area, how long it takes to get the results back and why the child needs it, the experts said.
Some day care centers and schools will only accept PCR results for clearance to return to school, so it is best to double check their rules beforehand.
The long-swab molecular test is considered the “gold standard,” but other less-invasive testing methods are also reliable. For routine testing, Dr. Jay K. Varma, senior advisor for public health at the Office of the Mayor of New York City, said the shorter swab “performs basically as well as the longer, deeper swab does. That’s true in both adults and children.” In fact, he added, New York City’s public hospital testing sites began switching from the long swab to the short swab during the summer.
Dr. Jennifer Lighter, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at NYU Langone Health, said she likes the antigen tests because they can quickly identify Covid-positive kids when they are contagious. Antigen tests are most accurate when the amount of virus in the sample is highest — typically around the day that symptoms start.
If you have a preference on which test you’d like your child to get, call your pediatrician’s office first and ask what kinds of tests they perform and how they collect the samples. Clarify whether they use the shallow (anterior) swab or the long (nasopharyngeal) swab. If you want the more comfortable, shallow PCR test but your pediatrician’s office does not offer it, try other testing centers in your area, including pediatric urgent care centers.
Some tests are now available for home use. But if you’re using a home test, check the label. Some aren’t indicated for children.
The Coronavirus Outbreak ›
Words to Know About Testing
Confused by the terms about coronavirus testing? Let us help:
- Antibody: A protein produced by the immune system that can recognize and attach precisely to specific kinds of viruses, bacteria, or other invaders.
- Antibody test/serology test: A test that detects antibodies specific to the coronavirus. Antibodies begin to appear in the blood about a week after the coronavirus has infected the body. Because antibodies take so long to develop, an antibody test can’t reliably diagnose an ongoing infection. But it can identify people who have been exposed to the coronavirus in the past.
- Antigen test: This test detects bits of coronavirus proteins called antigens. Antigen tests are fast, taking as little as five minutes, but are less accurate than tests that detect genetic material from the virus.
- Coronavirus: Any virus that belongs to the Orthocoronavirinae family of viruses. The coronavirus that causes Covid-19 is known as SARS-CoV-2.
- Covid-19: The disease caused by the new coronavirus. The name is short for coronavirus disease 2019.
- Isolation and quarantine: Isolation is the separation of people who know they are sick with a contagious disease from those who are not sick. Quarantine refers to restricting the movement of people who have been exposed to a virus.
- Nasopharyngeal swab: A long, flexible stick, tipped with a soft swab, that is inserted deep into the nose to get samples from the space where the nasal cavity meets the throat. Samples for coronavirus tests can also be collected with swabs that do not go as deep into the nose — sometimes called nasal swabs — or oral or throat swabs.
- Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR): Scientists use PCR to make millions of copies of genetic material in a sample. Tests that use PCR enable researchers to detect the coronavirus even when it is scarce.
- Viral load: The amount of virus in a person’s body. In people infected by the coronavirus, the viral load may peak before they start to show symptoms, if symptoms appear at all.
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