Too Sick for School? Flu Facts Every Parent Needs

Flu and cold season is in full swing, and parents everywhere are wondering: how sick is too sick for school? Find out—and get more flu facts from medical experts in the know.

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Flu Season Strikes

It’s flu season, and it’s a particularly bad one, with flu-related deaths and hospitalizations reaching startling numbers for the elderly and children 5 years old and younger. Influenza is a seasonal and episodic virus. It’s more rampant some years than others. To make matters worse, this year’s flu has brought along two evil twins, norovirus and whooping cough.

You want to keep your family healthy, of course, but who can put life on hold and spend several months in a sterilized bunker? Finding a balance between health and a normal lifestyle can be tricky; read on to get the facts about the flu and the advice of doctors to help inform your decisions.

For more information on how to help your sick kid, check out our comprehensive Cold and Flu Central.

Too Sick for School?

“If we told parents to keep their kid home for the sniffles, there would never be any kids at school,” says Dr. Pelen Wu, a pediatrician in Orinda, California. “I don’t want parents to panic, because that becomes very paralyzing, and you couldn’t possibly protect kids from every virus that’s out there.”

Keeping your child home from school can be a hassle. You may need to take a day off from work, which can cost you money or credibility at work. Your kid might be sick, but is she sick enough to miss school?

Skip the Classroom If...

Dr. Wayne Yankus, a pediatrician in Ridgewood, New Jersey, says these five symptoms should always keep a child home from school:

  • vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • a temperature of 100.6 or higher (Some schools and states suggest, or even require, lower temperatures.)
  • a rash that hasn't been diagnosed
  • an open weeping wound, which is a wound that “weeps” clear fluid and can be infectious

Dr. Wu adds strep throat and pink eye to the list.

Don't Rely Solely on the Shot

Pediatricians everywhere have likely seen a sick patient alongside a frantic parent lamenting, “The flu shot didn’t work!” It’s more complex than many people think. The Center for Disease Control advises that all adults and children who aren’t allergic get a flu vaccine, but doing so doesn’t ensure you can’t still get the flu. The CDC says the vaccine is “62 percent effective.”

Influenza is a virus that mutates rapidly, and vaccine manufacturers try to predict what the strain of the virus will be months ahead of time. “It's impossible to have a vaccine that heals all the different viruses,” says Dr. Carl Ivey, a parenting coach and retired pediatrician in Victoria, British Columbia. “It's like trying to hit a moving target because these viruses are constantly mutating."

Protect Baby by Protecting Yourself

Babies 6 months or younger and many people with health issues are not able to take the flu vaccine. The CDC and most doctors will tell you this is greater reason for those around them to get a flu shot, to avoid catching an illness that could then be passed onto others.

“It’s the best we can do,” Dr. Wu says. “If I can impart partial immunity to my child, I would rather do that than nothing. You don’t want to be scrambling in January or February looking for the flu shot.”

If you decide to get the flu shot, it’s best to get it done early, as it takes two weeks for the body to build immunity afterward. Early shipments are available in August, and the same vaccine is administered through the year.

Wait 24 Hours

If your child has been home sick for an extended period, you both might be inching to get back to normalcy. The day your child wakes up with a normal temperature and the right energy level, it’s time to send her back to school, right? Not so fast! Doctors have a few restrictions you should know.

A child should be fever-free and not vomiting for at least 24 hours before returning to school, and this is a good rule of thumb for most other “stay-home” symptoms. Diarrhea poses further restrictions, even after your child goes back to school. "Most children will not be eating 100 percent, even though they're ready to return to school,” Dr. Ivey says. “If the child has had diarrhea, he should not be given juice or dairy, including milk, for seven days.”

Teach Sanitation as a Top Priority

You know your child best. If she is responsible enough to wash her hands properly and use tissues, she may be ready for school earlier than a child who isn’t. Preschoolers and kindergarteners should be kept home an extra day or two, especially since their education rarely has timely demands.

Teach your child to take her time washing her hands. A memorable rule is to sing “Happy Birthday” twice. Also teach your child to sneeze and cough into her elbow, not her hands. “Viruses don’t live on cloth; they live on skin,” Dr. Yankus says.

Weigh Sport Participation Carefully

In 1997, basketball great Michael Jordan famously battled flu symptoms and led his team to a win in a championship series in what is dubbed “The Flu Game.” Guess what: Your child isn’t Michael Jordan.

When children play sports with any illness, they often become sicker for longer, which could mean missing more school, practices and games in the near future. The flu is a respiratory illness, and any cardio-vascular exercise is further strain that will set your child’s system back.

“You don’t do your team or your classmates any favors by showing up to practice or games when you’re sick,” says Dr. Yankus.

Count out physical education too. Call the school office or send a note with your child to make sure her teachers understand the situation.

Be Healthy Year-Round

The flu is scary, but the human body is resilient. “The good news is that the majority of childhood illnesses are what we call self-limited,” Dr. Ivey says. He says a healthy lifestyle with a low level of stress will strengthen the immune system. "If you're a healthy person, you're going to recover—you're going to be more resilient."

Flu season can stretch from October to May. That’s a long time to be worried about your child’s health and ready to react at a moment’s notice. Like many things in life and parenting, it’s better to act now than to react later.

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