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How to decide if a sick day is warranted

School’s not out for winter

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During the school year, it always seems like I have to walk a fine line when it comes to determining whether my daughter should stay home from school. Her education is very important, and ideally, she wouldn’t miss a day. But of course, I don’t want to send her in to class when she should be staying home to recover from an illness. What factors should help me decide between the two options?

As you have discovered, knowing when and when not to keep your child home from school is a gray area. Since most schools in the United States start at around 8 am, there’s not always time to consult with a physician before you decide what to do. However, there are many key indicators you can check to help you make as informed a decision as possible.

A common place to start is to check for fever, which is the most objectively measurable way to determine if a child should stay home. Most doctors define a fever as an oral temperature above 99.5 degrees Fahrenheit (37.4 degrees Celsius) or a rectal temperature above 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius). Fever is not technically an illness — in fact, a fever is usually a sign that the body is fighting off an infection, such as a cold, the flu, pneumonia, or another illness. Symptoms that can accompany a fever include sweating, shivering, headache, muscle aches, loss of appetite, dehydration, and weakness. In general, if your daughter has a fever, you should keep her home from school until her temperature has been normal for 24 hours.

Though you should always consult a physician if you have any concerns, a trip to the doctor on the first day of a fever is not generally necessary unless your child is unusually irritable, lethargic, or complains of significant discomfort. For a fever below 102 degrees Fahrenheit, she should rest and drink plenty of fluids. For a fever above 102 degrees Fahrenheit, you can give her acetaminophen (Tylenol or a generic) or ibuprofen (Advil or a generic), which should help the fever go down. You should always call a doctor if your child’s fever doesn’t respond to medication or lasts longer than three days.

Of course, the absence of a fever does not mean that a sick day is not warranted, nor do other symptoms mean that she cannot go to school. For example, it is generally not necessary to keep your child home because of a runny nose. A runny nose can be caused by a variety of non-contagious problems, such as dust or allergies. However, runny noses can also be caused by the common cold, which is pervasive during the school year, especially since colds are often extremely contagious. Unfortunately, the onset symptoms of a cold (runny nose, a cough, or general tiredness) are mild enough that parents will often send children with colds to school, which virtually guarantees that the annoying little bugs will be a fixture in the classroom throughout the winter. Since your child can’t take the whole winter off to avoid catching a cold, deciding what to do when she displays cold symptoms might be the most difficult decision you’ll face.

For other circumstances, the decision is more straightforward. If your child is vomiting, keep her home and consult a physician. Vomiting may be a symptom of gastroenteritis (stomach flu), which can be highly contagious. If your child has a rash, then it is usually OK to send her to school unless the rash is spreading to other parts of her body. Sending your child to school with a minor cough is usually fine (a little coughing due to cold weather is common in the winter months), but if that cough is persistent, it can be a sign of another infection, and she should see a doctor. If your child has diarrhea (and no other symptoms), it is generally all right to send her to school unless it is uncontrollable or severe.

School may be out for summer, but when it comes to the winter, school is firmly in. Knowing how to respond when an illness inevitably comes your daughter’s way will give you the best chance at safeguarding not only her health, but also her education.

Updated 5:24 pm, December 9, 2016
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