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Colds, flu decline among children. ‘Even 3-year-olds are good at wearing masks’

Children in day care wore masks last fall in Boston.
Children in day care wore masks last fall in Boston.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Pediatricians are seeing fewer respiratory illnesses this winter among young children, even those who are attending day care and preschool, suggesting that measures meant to prevent the spread of COVID-19 have a side benefit.

The common infections typically peak during December, January, and February, and are usually spread in group settings like school and day care.

“Whether it’s due from colds, [or] the flu, we really have not seen as much this year,” said Dr. Shirley Huang, chief of general pediatrics at Tufts Medical Center.

Dr. Eileen Costello, chief of ambulatory pediatrics at Boston Medical Center, said the drop is likely the result of many young students learning remotely as well as mask-wearing and social distancing in group settings. In addition, the state mandated flu vaccines for all children 6 months or older who are enrolled in day care or preschool.

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Costello said BMC has had only three cases of the flu this year, all adults. The hospital has also seen just one adult case of respiratory syncytial virus, a common and potentially serious illness for infants.

Costello said that the trend seems to hold up with children attending day care and preschool in person.

“I mean, even 3-year-olds are good at wearing masks,” she said. “That’s the shocking thing: I don’t think anyone believes that a 3-year-old would keep on a mask, but they do. It’s amazing.”

Huang said since data indicate that it’s safe for children to go to school, day care, and camps without contracting COVID-19, the same should hold true for similar illnesses. Even if small children do contract COVID-19, they aren’t very effective at spreading the virus, Costello added.

“We know that little guys are not big spreaders of COVID. They don’t generate [much force] when they cough, they’re too little,” Costello said.

Huang said that if a child comes down with a non-COVID respiratory illness, parents should still exercise caution and contact a pediatrician.

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“It will be impossible for family members to know whether it’s the common cold or whether it’s COVID without calling their primary care provider and asking to be tested for COVID,” Huang said. “A lot of the symptoms are very similar in children, as well as adults.”

Both doctors said they hope that after the pandemic ends their patients will take what they have learned and apply it to normal cold and flu seasons.

“We know how to prevent flu, but it’s not by living a normal life, which we will all go back to,” Costello said “But I’m hoping that people will agree to wear masks if they have a bad cold, and [that] people will wash their hands more, and use Purell more, and understand to stay away from people when they’re sick.”


Diana Bravo can be reached at diana.bravo@globe.com.