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Does having young children affect the severity of COVID infection in their parents?

Study evaluated risk of severe COVID-19 among adults with and without exposure to young children in a large, integrated healthcare system in the US.

Having young children does not protect the parents against infection with COVID-19 but does result in a significantly lower risk of more severe illness, according to an analysis by US researchers.

Data from China during the early part of the COVID-19 pandemic suggested that while children of all ages appeared susceptible to infection, the clinical manifestations were generally less severe than those of adult patients.

Moreover, several factors have been postulated to account for these differences and include lower levels of the ACE2 receptor in children, cross-reactive humoral immunity and T-cell immunity from the common cold (which is also a coronavirus) and how children generally produce lower levels of inflammatory cytokines. 

In fact, one study identified COVID-19 spike glycoprotein-reactive antibodies among uninfected individuals, which were particularly prevalent in children and adolescents, suggesting a degree of cross-immunity.

This is perhaps no surprise due to the continued exposure to colds during early life, and one study has shown that attendance at a large day care centre was associated with more common colds among pre-school children during the preschool years but that this was protective against the common cold during the early school years, presumably through acquired immunity.

With children therefore likely to have some level of cross-immunity to infection with COVID-19, does having young children affect the severity of infection in their parents? This was the question addressed by the current study.

Researchers examined data in the Kaiser Permanente Northern California database, which provides comprehensive healthcare information and looked for adults with and without children. The children were categorised into different age bands: young children (aged 0–5 years), 6–11 years and 12–18 years.

Those parents with young children were considered to be the study population of interest and the three comparative groups were propensity matched 1:1 based on the risk of infection, age, sex and co-morbidities.

Exposure to young children and COVID-19 outcomes

A total of 3,126,427 adults, of whom 24% had children under 18 years of age were included in the analysis. Within the whole cohort, 274,316 adults (8.8%) with a mean age of 36.2 years (51.4% female) had young children.

When researchers compared the risk of infection with COVID-19 among adults without children to those with young children, there was a significantly reduced risk (incidence risk ratio, IRR = 0.85, 95% CI 0.83 – 0.87, p < 0.0001). But among adults without children, there was a significantly higher risk of hospitalisation for COVID-19 (IRR = 1.27, 95% CI 1.10 – 1.46, p = 0.0014) and for admission to an intensive care unit (IRR = 1.49).

Furthermore, when the researchers re-calculated this risk of severe illness relative to the total population within the different groups, i.e. the risk of a severe COVID-19 outcome among adults who became infected, there was a 49% higher rate of hospitalisation and a 76% higher risk of intensive care admission.

The authors concluded that while having young children did not reduce the risk of becoming infected with COVID-19, it was associated with a far less severe illness and suggested that cross-immunity might play a role in protecting against more severe COVID-19.

Soloman MD et al. Risk of severe COVID-19 infection among adults with prior exposure to children. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 2022.