Kids health

How to prepare your kid for the coronavirus nasal test

What does it feel like? How long will it take? Will it hurt? Kids will have a lot of questions about the dreaded swab.

When six-year-old Isaac started coughing one afternoon in early April, and then woke up with a fever the next day, his mom started wondering about coronavirus. “Our county had set up two drive-through testing sites. I was up in the night worrying about him, and filled out the questionnaire at 3 in the morning to see if he was eligible for a test,” says Jennifer Davis, who lives in Houston, Texas.  

The next day, Davis drove 30 minutes to the site, where personnel in full protective gear administered a nasal swab for the coronavirus test for kids. “He said it was terrible,” says his mother. But, the boy took it like a champ. Four days later, she got the call to confirm he indeed had the virus. 

When will my kid need a coronavirus test?

The protocol around COVID testing for kids is constantly changing. However, if your child has one or more symptoms of the virus, including fever, cough, runny nose and stomach upset, they may need to get tested. (Check with the public health information in your area to find out the process and eligibility.) That was the case for Daniella Weber’s* six-year-old son in Toronto. “He had a tummy ache for three weeks, with no clear diagnosis,” she says. “One day he spiked a fever and was fatigued so I called the doctor back and they asked us to go into a testing site to get a COVID swab.” 

At some hospitals, if your child has a surgery scheduled, they may also need a COVID-19 test a few days in advance of the surgery. Amelia Joucdar, nurse manager of surgery at Montreal Children’s Hospital, explains that in these instances, a lot of care goes into making sure those patients don’t go into the same area as the patients who are coming in for tests because they are having symptoms. 

What is the coronavirus test for kids like?

The coronavirus test for kids is the same nasal swab that’s done for other respiratory illnesses, like influenza. “We use a long Q-tip that’s very flexible,” says Joucdar. “We insert it pretty deep, swish and take it out.” Some testing sites insert it into both nostrils, while others only do one. 

While the test doesn’t hurt, by all accounts, it’s fairly uncomfortable—and people perceive pain differently. “We let kids know that it might feel a little bit strange because we normally don’t have things that go that far back our nose. It might feel like tickling or poking,” says Natalie Wilson, a child life specialist at SickKids hospital in Toronto. 

How can I prepare my child for the coronavirus test?

First, it’s important to let your kid know that the person doing the test will be in full personal protective equipment, including a gown, gloves, mask and a face shield. “We tell them it’s our superhero costume,” says Joucdar, who says that otherwise kids can become quite frightened by the getup.  

When describing the test to your child, child life specialist Alexx Friesen, who works primarily at the Credit Valley Hospital in Mississauga, Ont., suggests using language at their level. “I try to keep it lighthearted,” she says. “For example, ‘There are boogers in your nose and there’s actually a lot of information hiding in there that the doctors and nurses can use to figure out why you’re not feeling well.”

Wilson says that depending on their age, there may be different aspects of the test they are finding stressful. “Preschoolers are in a very imaginative thinking stage. They might be afraid that the swab is going to get stuck in their nose, or that if someone is taking a sample out of their nose, they’re going to take too much,” she explains. Whereas older kids may have heard things about coronavirus and are afraid of having the disease—and if they do, there are lots of people who can help. You can also reiterate the things you’ve been doing to stay safe, like staying at home as much as possible and practising physical distancing.

Younger kids might benefit from role-playing the coronavirus test at home with a stuffie or a doll. You can give them a Q-tip and they can pretend to put it in the doll’s nose for a count of five. 

How can I get my kid to stay still for the coronavirus test?

Despite how well you prepare for a coronavirus test for kids, they may have trouble staying still when that long Q-tip heads for their nostril—so it’s a good idea to position them appropriately to reduce sudden movements.

For small babies, Joucdar suggests swaddling them. You can also breastfeed, as long as the nurse still has access to the nostril, or use other comfort items like a pacifier. 

Toddlers and preschoolers may need to be held on your lap; hug them with one arm and tilt their head gently back with the other. If their legs are flailing, you can gently wrap your legs around theirs. For older kids, ask them if they prefer to be seated on you, or next to you, recommends Wilson. “There are a number of different comfort holds that we can coach parents on,” says Wilson. “All of our research shows that it can be more effective than a stranger in PPE holding them down.”

From there, it’s all about distraction—a light-up toy, singing a song, watching a video—anything is on the table. “Even if kids are not normally allowed electronic time, I do find it really ramps up cooperation to get this test, or any medical test, done,” says Friesen. You may also want to discuss in advance what type of reward they’ll get for doing the test, like a small toy, a candy or a special phone call with Grandma afterwards. And be sure to give plenty of verbal praise for a job well done. 

Remember, the test will be over fast, and there shouldn’t be any lasting pain or discomfort. The hardest part may be waiting for the test results. 

*Name has been changed