Parents do their best to keep kids healthy during flu season, but sometimes even the most vigilant preventive measures can’t ward off the flu.
When your child gets sick with the flu, keeping them home from school can help them recover faster. It also helps prevent the virus from spreading to other children in the school, which is critical to keeping everyone as healthy as possible.
Healthcare professionals recommend that sick children stay home until they're well enough to go back to school. This is typically about 24 hours after symptoms begin to improve. In some cases, however, it can be difficult to determine whether your child is well enough to return to school. Consider the following signs as you make your decision.
It’s best to keep your child at home if they have a temperature at or above 100.4°F. A fever indicates that the body is fighting off infection, which means that your child is vulnerable and likely contagious. Wait at least 24 hours after the fever has come down and stabilized without medication to consider sending your child back to school.
Vomiting and Diarrhea
Vomiting and diarrhea are good reasons for your child to stay home. These symptoms are difficult to deal with at school and show that the child is still capable of spreading the infection to others. Additionally, in younger children, frequent episodes of diarrhea and vomiting may make appropriate hygiene difficult, increasing the risk of spreading the infection. Wait at least 24 hours after the last episode before considering a return to school.
If your little one is falling asleep at the table or acting particularly fatigued, they are unlikely to benefit from sitting in class all day. Make sure your child stays hydrated and let them rest in bed. If your child is exhibiting a level of fatigue that is beyond what you would expect from a typical mild illness, they may be lethargic. Lethargy is a serious sign and should be evaluated by your child’s pediatrician immediately.
Persistent Cough or Sore Throat
A persistent cough is likely to be disruptive in class. It is also one of the primary ways of spreading a viral infection. If your child has a severe sore throat and a lasting cough, keep them home until the cough is nearly gone or easily controlled. They may also require testing by your child’s doctor for illnesses such as strep throat, which are highly contagious but easily treated with antibiotics.
Irritated Eyes or Rashes
Red, itchy, and watery eyes can be difficult to manage in class and can distract your child from learning. In some cases, a rash may be a symptom of another infection, so it’s a good idea to take your child to the doctor. Keeping your child home is usually the best thing to do until these symptoms clear up or until you’ve spoken with the doctor. If your child has conjunctivitis, or pink eye, he or she needs to be diagnosed promptly, as this condition is highly contagious and can spread quickly through schools and day care centers.
Appearance and Attitude
Does your child look pale or tired? Do they seem irritable or disinterested in doing normal daily activities? Are you having a hard time getting your child to eat anything? These are all signs that more recovery time is needed at home.
Earaches, stomachaches, headaches, and body aches often indicate that your child is still fighting the flu. This means that they can easily spread the virus to other children, so it’s best to keep them home until any pain or discomfort has disappeared.
If you’re still having trouble deciding whether to keep your child home from school, call the school and speak with the nurse to get advice. Most schools have general guidelines for when it's safe to send children back to school after being sick, and the school nurse will be happy to share these with you. These guidelines may also be available online.
To help speed up your child’s recovery time, read our article on Treatments to End the Flu.
How to Manage a Sick Day
If you decide that your child definitely needs to stay home, you may face many additional challenges. Do you have to take a sick day? If you're a stay-at-home mom, how can you balance caring for your other kids when one child is sick? Here are some ways you can prepare for school sick days.
Talk to Your Employer Ahead of Time
Discuss possibilities with your employer as flu season approaches. For example, ask about working from home and attending meetings over the phone or Internet. Make sure you have the equipment you need at home. A computer, high-speed Internet connection, fax machine, and printer may make it easier for you to manage work tasks from your home.
Ask About Your Options
You should also find out how many sick days you have at work so you can balance your time off. You may even want to ask your employer about the possibility of taking a day off without using up your sick time. Another option is to trade off at-home duties with your partner if you both work.
Have a Backup Plan
Call a family member, friend, or babysitter to see if they would be able to stay with your child. Having someone available to help at a moment’s notice can be invaluable when you can’t stay home from work to care for your child.
Designate a shelf or cupboard for over-the-counter medications, vapor rubs, extra tissues, and antibacterial wipes so you're ready for flu season. Keeping these items in one place is also helpful for anyone who comes to your house to care for your child.
Be Diligent About Hygiene
Make sure your child washes their hands frequently and always coughs or sneezes into their elbow. This will help prevent them from spreading the virus to other people. It’s also important to make sure everyone in the home drinks plenty of fluids and gets a sufficient amount of sleep.
Other preventive measures include:
- avoiding sharing towels, dishes, and utensils with the infected person
- limiting close contact with the infected person as much as possible
- using antibacterial wipes to clean shared surfaces, such as doorknobs and sinks
For more ideas, read our article on 7 Ways to Flu-Proof Your Home.
How to Know When It's Safe to Send Your Child Back to School
It may be easy to know when your child is too sick to go to school, but it is often difficult to determine when they are ready to go back. Sending your child back too soon can delay their recovery and make other children in the school more susceptible to the virus as well. Below are some guidelines that may help you decide whether or not your child is ready to return to school.
Once the fever has been controlled for over 24 hours without medication, the child is usually safe to return to school. However, your child may still need to stay home if they are continuing to experience other symptoms, such as diarrhea, vomiting, or a persistent cough.
Your child may return to school after taking medication the doctor prescribed for a minimum of 24 hours, as long as they don't have a fever or other serious symptoms. Make sure that the school nurse and your child’s teacher are aware of these medications and their proper doses.
Only Mild Symptoms Present
Your child can also go back to school if they’re only experiencing a runny nose and other mild symptoms. Make sure to provide tissues for them and to give them an over-the-counter medicine that can help control the remaining symptoms.
Attitude and Appearance Improve
If your child is looking and acting like they are feeling much better, then it is typically safe for them to go back to school.
In the end, you may have to rely on your parental intuition to make the final call. You know your child better than anyone, so you’ll be able to tell when they’re feeling better. Do they look too miserable to go to school? Are they playing and acting normally, or are they happy to curl up in a chair with a blanket? Trust your intuition to make the best decision. If you have any doubts, always remember you can ask others such as the school nurse or your child’s pediatrician. They will be glad to offer you advice.