It’s understandable that many parents might feel conflicted about what to do when their child whines, “I don’t feel good.” Children are constantly coming down with illnesses big and small — a runny nose, a sore throat, a tummy ache. For many parents, it can be hard to know when a child is actually too sick for school.
The answer is not as simple as it might seem. There’s a lot of pressure to make sure children have good attendance. Plus, keeping a child home from school or day care can interfere with a parent’s ability to go to work that day.
The stakes can be high, and not only for your own family. The repercussions of sending a contagious child to school were illustrated in a highly publicized recent incident when a stomach virus swept through an elementary school in Florida and more than 300 stricken students had to go home in a single day. It was later determined that the children were infected with a norovirus, a highly contagious stomach bug that causes severe vomiting, diarrhea, and stomach cramping. Special maintenance crews had to be sent in to sanitize the school in an effort to stop the spread of the bug.
The case was notable because of the number of affected children. Panicked parents had no idea what kind of illness was sweeping through their school. But at the core of the incident was the kind of decision that happens every day, at schools across the country. Probably uncertain of what to do that day, a parent had sent a sick child to school, allowing a virus to spread through the classrooms like wildfire.
With the official flu season upon us, chances are that most parents will eventually face the question of what to do about a child who is feeling under the weather. The American Academy of Pediatrics and other medical experts advise the following:
• To protect against the flu, the first and most important thing you can do is to get a flu vaccine for yourself and your child. Vaccination is recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for everyone 6 months and older.
• If your child has a fever of 100.5 and higher, keep him home. Fever is an indication that your child is fighting off some germs. Fevers can be controlled by over-the-counter medication, but you should wait until children are fever-free naturally before letting them return to school.
• If your child has diarrhea, keep him home until things get back to normal. Diarrhea can often be a sign of an infection or virus that might be contagious. While you are waiting it out, make sure your sick child stays well-hydrated.
• Vomiting is another way for the body to rid itself of the germs making it sick. Keep children home if they’ve vomited twice or more in the last 24 hours. Hydration is important here, too, but you should offer only a few small sips at a time.
• Mild rashes may be harmless and easily resolved, but more serious eruptions merit the review of your doctor. Rashes can be the sign of contagious conditions such as chickenpox or impetigo. Children should be kept home until they’re diagnosed.
• Children with severe cough and cold symptoms should stay home. Each cough or sneeze spreads germs. Mild cold or respiratory symptoms, however, are no reason to keep children at home, so long as their nasal drainage is clear and their cough is mild.
A good measure of whether your child is well enough for school is if he seems well enough to engage in classroom activities. If kids seem too run down to get much out of being there, keep them home.
KiKi Bochi is a freelance writer and editor who specializes in family health and child development.