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Is Your Child Too Sick to Go to School? Experts Offer Easy Tells

Blog Is Your Child Too Sick to Go to School? Experts Offer Easy Tells

To take the guesswork out of making the call, we asked Elaine Cox, M.D., medical director of infection prevention at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health and created this helpful guide.


A new poll confirms what most parents already know: determining when a sick child needs to stay home can be challenging. Results revealed that parents used particular symptoms as a guide—diarrhea was most likely to warrant a sick day, while a runny nose or dry cough without a fever was least likely to prompt parents to keep kids home.

To take the guesswork out of making the call, we asked Elaine Cox, M.D., medical director of infection prevention at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health and created this helpful guide:

Fever

If your child’s temperature is above 100.5°F, he officially has a fever and shouldn’t go anywhere, says Dr. Cox: “Your child should be fever-free for 24 hours—without the help of fever-reducing medication—before he can go to school.” Parents are sometimes tempted to give their child a fever-reducer in the morning and send him to school, but Dr. Cox warns against it. When the medication wears off and the fever returns, you’ll likely be back at school a few hours later to pick him up. Plus, if the fever won’t stay down without medication, that’s a sign your child is probably still contagious, Dr. Cox says.

Coughing/runny nose

These symptoms can be a tough call because they may linger long after your child is over the worst of her illness. “People can shed viral particles for two to six weeks after they’ve been sick,” says Dr. Cox. No one can stay home that long, of course, so the key is to keep kids out of school until their mucus isn’t flowing quite so freely. “Young children tend to spread germs to others by wiping their nose and then touching things others kids use, like toys or a bathroom faucet,” Dr. Cox says. Coughs are somewhat less worrisome, contagion-wise, because children don’t have the strength to produce a cough that disperses a lot of germs.

Sore throat

If it’s mild and not accompanied by a fever, chills, or body aches, your child can likely go to school. If it’s caused by a bacterial infection like strep throat, he should stay home until he’s been on antibiotics for 24 hours. “Most kids will feel better by then, but if he still has a fever, wait until he’s been fever-free for 24 hours before sending him to school,” Dr. Cox says.

Diarrhea and/or vomiting

Definitely keep kids home and only send them to school once they’ve gone 24 hours without experiencing either symptom. “This is extremely important because some stomach viruses such as norovirus are highly contagious,” Dr. Cox says. “You only need to be exposed to about 12 virus particles to get sick, which is why it runs rampant.”

Conjunctivitis (pinkeye)

Like norovirus, viral conjunctivitis spreads rapidly because it takes so few viral particles to make others sick. “Normally, the advice is to keep kids home until the eye is clear, but that can take a long time and it isn’t the best indicator,” Dr. Cox says. A better way to make the call is to look at the shape of your child’s eye. “Conjunctivitis can make the affected eye appear slightly closed,” she explains. “It should resume its normal contour in a day or two, which means your child has recovered.”

-- By Jessica Brown

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