Childhood Cancer Patients and the Coronavirus: Common Questions Answered

May 14, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Kimberly J. Davies, MD

We know this is a stressful time for you and your family. Please talk with your child’s care team about any questions or concerns you may have.

How does a person get coronavirus? 

Coronavirus is spread primarily by exposure to respiratory droplets that are generated when an infected individual coughs or sneezes. If these droplets come in contact with the eyes, nose, or mouth of another person, infection can develop. 

Infected droplets can remain active on surfaces for some time. This can happen, for example, if an infected person sneezes and the droplets land on a keyboard or countertop, or if an infected person touches a doorknob or light switch. You can catch the virus if you touch one of these areas and then touch your eyes, nose, or mouth. 

How does the virus affect children? 

The number of reported cases of COVID-19 in children under age 19 remains relatively low compared with reported cases in adults. However, there may be many children with mild infection who have not been tested or identified yet, so it is difficult to know the actual number infected. 

What are the symptoms of the coronavirus? 

  • Fever 
  • Cough (usually a dry cough) 
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing 

Symptoms may also include: 

  • Tiredness/fatigue 
  • Body aches 
  • Runny nose 
  • Sore throat 

Research shows that symptoms usually appear within about 5 days, but it can take longer. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) say that symptoms of COVID-19 may start between 2-14 days after exposure (being infected by the virus). 

What should I do if my child gets a fever? 

As always when you have a health concern about your child, please call your care team. 

Are children with underlying illnesses such as cancer or a blood disorder more at risk? 

There isn’t a lot of evidence at this time, but we urge you to take all needed precautions. We know that children and teens undergoing treatment for cancer or a blood disorder often have a weaker immune system, which can make it harder for them to fight viruses and infection. As a parent or caregiver, you should be sure your family takes all possible precautions to prevent infection. 

How can I help protect my child and family? 

  • Maintain social distance. This means you and your child should avoid contact with other people. Keep a distance of at least six feet between yourself and others. 
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. 
  • Cover your nose and mouth when you cough or sneeze. 
  • If your hands are not clean, don’t touch your eyes, nose, or mouth. 
  • Clean and disinfect areas that people often touch, like toys and doorknobs. 
  • Avoid crowds and stay home as much as possible. Do not let your child attend social gatherings.
  • Avoid using mass transit. 

Since it is a respiratory virus, why the emphasis on hand washing vs. other protective measures? 

If the virus is on your hands after you come in contact with an infected individual or a contaminated surface, you can become infected when you touch your face (eyes, nose, or mouth). Cleaning your hands with soap and water removes the virus so that you don’t transfer it to your eyes, nose, or mouth. 

What should I know about the serious inflammatory syndrome in children that is linked to COVID-19?

Alerts have been circulating in Europe and the U.S. about multi-system inflammatory disease in children with COVID-19, based on a small rise in the number of critically ill children with this illness. Picked up by multiple media outlets, the alerts have cited features of toxic shock syndrome and incomplete Kawasaki disease, with some children experiencing gastrointestinal symptoms and cardiac inflammation. The emerging syndrome is now being called “Pediatric Multi-System Inflammatory Syndrome Potentially Associated with COVID-19.” Here’s what we know about it right now.

Learn more by visiting the Boston Children’s Hospital and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute websites.