COVID-19 Characteristics Differ in Children vs Adults

Sharon Worcester

March 13, 2020

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Pediatric cases of COVID-19 infection are typically mild, but underlying coinfection may be more common in children than in adults, according to an analysis of clinical, laboratory, and chest CT features of pediatric inpatients in Wuhan, China.

The findings point toward a need for early chest CT with corresponding pathogen detection in children with suspected COVID-19 infection, Wei Xia, MD, of Huazhong University of Science and Technology, Wuhan, China, and colleagues reported in Pediatric Pulmonology.

The most common symptoms in 20 pediatric patients hospitalized between Jan. 23 and Feb. 8, 2020, with COVID-19 infection confirmed by the pharyngeal swab COVID-19 nucleic acid test were fever and cough, which occurred in 60% and 65% of patients, respectively. Coinfection was detected in eight patients (40%), they noted.

Clinical manifestations were similar to those seen in adults, but overall symptoms were relatively mild and overall prognosis was good. Of particular note, 7 of the 20 (35%) patients had a previously diagnosed congenital or acquired diseases, suggesting that children with underlying conditions may be more susceptible, Dr. Xia and colleagues wrote.

Laboratory findings also were notable in that 80% of the children had procalcitonin (PCT) elevations not typically seen in adults with COVID-19. PCT is a marker for bacterial infection and "[this finding] may suggest that routine antibacterial treatment should be considered in pediatric patients," the investigators wrote.

As for imaging results, chest CT findings in children were similar to those in adults."The typical manifestations were unilateral or bilateral subpleural ground-glass opacities, and consolidations with surrounding halo signs," Dr. Xia and associates wrote, adding that consolidations with surrounding halo sign accounted for about half the pediatric cases and should be considered as "typical signs in pediatric patients."

Pediatric cases were "rather rare" in the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan, where the first cases of infection were reported.

"As a pediatric group is usually susceptible to upper respiratory tract infection, because of their developing immune system, the delayed presence of pediatric patients is confusing," the investigators wrote, noting that a low detection rate of pharyngeal swab COVID-19 nucleic acid test, distinguishing the virus from other common respiratory tract infectious pathogens in pediatric patients, "is still a problem."

To better characterize the clinical and imaging features in children versus adults with COVID-19, Dr. Xia and associates reviewed these 20 pediatric cases, including 13 boys and 7 girls with ages ranging from less than 1 month to 14 years, 7 months (median 2 years, 1.5 months). Thirteen had an identified close contact with a COVID-19–diagnosed family member, and all were treated in an isolation ward. A total of 18 children were cured and discharged after an average stay of 13 days, and 2 neonates remained under observation because of positive swab results with negative CT findings. The investigators speculated that the different findings in neonates were perhaps caused by the influence of delivery on sampling or the specific CT manifestations for neonates, adding that more samples are needed for further clarification.

Based on these findings, "the CT imaging of COVID-19 infection should be differentiated with other virus pneumonias such as influenza virus, parainfluenza virus, respiratory syncytial virus, and adenovirus," they concluded. It also should "be differentiated from bacterial pneumonia, mycoplasma pneumonia, and chlamydia pneumonia...the density of pneumonia lesions caused by the latter pathogens is relatively higher."

However, Dr. Xia and colleagues noted that chest CT manifestations of pneumonia caused by different pathogens overlap, and COVID-19 pneumonia "can be superimposed with serious and complex imaging manifestations, so epidemiological and etiological examinations should be combined."

The investigators concluded that COVID-19 virus pneumonia in children is generally mild, and that the characteristic changes of subpleural ground-glass opacities and consolidations with surrounding halo on chest CT provide an "effective means for follow-up and evaluating the changes of lung lesions."

"In the case that the positive rate of COVID-19 nucleic acid test from pharyngeal swab samples is not high, the early detection of lesions by CT is conducive to reasonable management and early treatment for pediatric patients. However, the diagnosis of COVID-19 pneumonia by CT imaging alone is not sufficient enough, especially in the case of coinfection with other pathogens," Dr. Xia and associates wrote. "Therefore, early chest CT screening and timely follow-up, combined with corresponding pathogen detection, is a feasible clinical protocol in children."

An Early Study

In a separate retrospective analysis described in a letter to the editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, Weiyong Liu, PhD, of Tongji Hospital of Huazhong University of Science and Technology and colleagues found that the most frequently detected pathogens in 366 children under the age of 16 years hospitalized with respiratory infections in Wuhan during Jan. 7-15, 2020, were influenza A virus (6.3% of cases) and influenza B virus (5.5% of cases), whereas COVID-19 was detected in 1.6% of cases.

The median age of the COVID-19 patients in that series was 3 years (range 1-7 years), and in contrast to the findings of Xia et al., all previously had been "completely healthy." Common characteristics were high fever and cough in all six patients, and vomiting in four patients. Five had pneumonia as assessed by X-ray, and CTs showed typical viral pneumonia patterns.

One patient was admitted to a pediatric ICU. All patients received antiviral agents, antibiotic agents, and supportive therapies; all recovered after a median hospital stay of 7.5 days (median range, 5-13 days).

In contrast with the findings of Xia et al., the findings of Liu et al. showed COVID-19 caused moderate to severe respiratory illness in children, and that infections in children were occurring early in the epidemic.

Some Perspective

In an interview regarding the findings by Xia et al., Stephen I. Pelton, MD, professor of pediatrics and epidemiology at Boston University, and director of pediatric infectious diseases at Boston Medical Center, noted the absence of fever in 40% of cases.

"This is important, as the criteria for testing by public health departments has been high fever, cough, and shortness of breath," he said. "The absence of fever is not inconsistent with COVID-19 disease."

Another important point regarding the findings by Xia et al. is that the highest attack rates appear to be in children under 1 year of age, he said, further noting that the finding of concurrent influenza A, influenza B, or respiratory syncytial virus underscores that "concurrent infection can occur, and the presence of another virus in diagnostic tests does not mean that COVID-19 is not causal."

As for whether the finding of elevated procalcitonin levels in 80% of cases reflects COVID-19 disease or coinfection with bacteria, the answer is unclear. But none of the children in the study were proven to have bacterial disease, he said, adding that "this marker will need to be interpreted with caution in the setting of COVID-19 disease."

Dr. Xia and colleagues reported having no disclosures. Dr. Liu and associates also reported having no disclosures. The study by Liu et al. was supported by the Ministry of Science and Technology of China, the National Mega Project on Major Infectious Disease Prevention, and the National Key Research and Development Program of China.

SOURCES: Xia W et al. Ped Pulmonol. 2020 Mar 5. doi: 10.1002/ppul.24718; Liu W et al. N Engl J Med. 2020 Mar 12. doi: 10.1056/NEJMc2003717.

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