Understanding the long-term effects of respiratory infections in kids and teens

Catching COVID-19 or the flu is never fun – but it’s even worse when symptoms persist. While we know a lot about the acute effects of COVID-19 and influenza, we have less understanding of the long-term consequences, especially in children and adolescents.

Dr Mark McMillan, a Women’s & Children’s Hospital Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Adelaide and Women’s and Children’s Hospital, hopes to change that by investigating the long-term effects of respiratory infections like COVID-19 and the flu in children and adolescents.

The rise in COVID-19 cases around Christmas, and a 2023 flu season on par with pre-pandemic levels, reminds us that these infectious diseases are out in force. We are increasingly aware of the persistent symptoms that can follow a COVID-19 infection, often called long COVID. The World Health Organization defines long COVID as symptoms that start after the initial infection and persist for at least two months, without an alternative diagnosis. Long COVID can occur in people of any age, including children and adolescents, and can include a wide range of symptoms such as fatigue, brain fog and shortness of breath. While the flu can also lead to long-term conditions in adults, its impact on younger populations is unclear.

Dr McMillan says, “In Australia, there is no comprehensive system for gathering data on long COVID in children, which is crucial for informing clinical management and shaping vaccine guidelines.”

This gap in data is particularly concerning given that long COVID can affect children’s learning and overall quality of life during their critical developmental years.

Dr McMillan will begin recruiting for the ‘Children and Adolescents: Respiratory Infection and Long-Term Effects (CARE) Study’ in early 2024. He will be contacting parents of children and adolescents aged up to 17 years who have recently had a COVID-19 or an influenza infection to take part. Participants will complete an initial online survey about their infection, and follow-up surveys over the course of 12 months about any ongoing symptoms and how they may be impacting on health and quality of life. The information collected will provide vital evidence to inform better management and treatment of the long-term effects of COVID-19 and influenza in children and adolescents in the future.

This research is made possible through the generosity of WCH Foundation supporters. If you would like to help improve the health and lives of women, children and families in South Australia, donate to support WCH Foundation research today.

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