Runny Nose or Really Sick? When to Keep Kids Home From School

Health & Wellness on 11.07.11
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We're quickly approaching the time of year when you can shower your kids in hand sanitizer, but they'll still manage to catch a virus or twenty from school and playmates. Unfortunately, frequent illness is a rite of passage for children, although vaccines can reduce their likelihood of catching the flu, chicken pox and other nasty bugs. Every parent will eventually be faced with the question of whether or not a kid is too sick for school. Occasionally, we'll make the wrong call because a fever or other symptom hasn't shown up yet - and there's nothing wrong with that. The idea is simply to minimize your child's discomfort and keep from exposing other kids to unnecessary germs.

Obviously, you can't keep your child home every time he has a runny nose, otherwise he'd never leave the house. So, when that inevitable day dawns that your child wakes up feeling less than stellar, refer to this handy list of signs and symptoms that you shouldn't ignore.

Fever: Some schools have different cutoffs when it comes to fevers. In general, any child with a fever greater than 100.4°F should stay home and relish a Phineas and Ferb marathon.  Most physicians recommend that children be kept home until they've been fever free without fever reducer for 24 hours.

Vomiting: Keep 'em home. No one wants to be put in the position of puking in front of the class. Plus, stomach bugs spread like wildfire.

Diarrhea: If mild and sporadic with no other symptoms, sending a kid with diarrhea to school is fine (although you might discreetly place a change of clothes in his backpack, just in case). If severe, keep him home.

Pink eye (conjunctivitis): Mild eye goo isn't such a big deal. If your child has a severe case keep him home until it clears up or he's taken drops for a period of time determined by his doctor (usually 24 hours).

Rash: If your child is sporting a rash that has spread, it's best to keep him out of school until it has passed or been evaluated by a doctor.

Persistent pain: Every kid fakes a tummy ache at one time or another, but persistent pain in the ear(s) or abdomen is a sign that something larger is looming.

Frequent cough: A little cough is probably not going to hurt anybody. A persistent cough, however, can be a sign of a secondary infection, like pneumonia. See a doctor immediately if your child is having a hard time breathing, because this could indicate anything from asthma to bronchitis.

Nasal discharge: This one can be tricky, because a runny nose in any color can be caused by a variety of non-contagious problems, like dust or allergies. In general, children with mild colds should go to school because they catch them so frequently. If your child is very uncomfortable, however, a little R&R is probably in order.

Severe sore throat: Scarlet fever and strep are annoyingly common and mightily painful. If your kid develops a sore throat, fever, headache and even nausea, call his doctor immediately and keep him home from school.

These basic rules of thumb are certainly helpful for uncertain parents. I highly recommend that you look over your school's recommendations and tack them up on the refrigerator for easy reference. I like this cheat sheet by Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, which contains additional details that you'll find useful when making your judgment call.

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