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When to Keep a Child at Home

Although it may seem obvious, children should not go to school when they're contagious to others, when they have a fever, or when they're too sick to learn. Childhood illnesses are spread easily when children are in close contact in the school setting.

How do you know if your child is contagious? Colds are a bit tricky, since your child can transmit it to others for one or two days before his symptoms appear, and up to four or five days after first being exposed to the virus. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), colds are most contagious two to four days after original exposure (whether or not symptoms have developed), when there is plenty of the virus present in nasal secretions. The contagious period for a cold only lasts about three to four days into the illness. Similarly, people infected with the flu are contagious from a day before they feel sick until their symptoms have resolved. For children, the contagious period for the flu can last up to two weeks after they start feeling sick, even if they start feeling better before that.

Most schools will send a child home if they think he or she is showing symptoms of the following conditions:

  • Fever
  • Chicken pox
  • Strep throat
  • Vomiting and/or diarrhea
  • Skin infections
  • Eye infections
  • Parasitic infections such as lice or scabies
A child with a runny nose or persistent cough, on the other hand, doesn't necessarily pose a health threat to other students, particularly if he's careful to wash his hands frequently. Children recovering from a cold should be able to go to school, as long as they're feeling okay. Note that the FDA discourages the use of cold and cough remedies in school-age children, since they are only 6% effective at relieving symptoms.

Experts agree that the best method of infection control is simply washing the hands with ordinary soap and water. Additionally, they recommend that schools institute the following infection-control measures: faucets that turn on automatically, bathroom doors that open when you approach them, and wall-mounted dispensers of hand sanitizer.

You can help your kids stay healthy by teaching them these rules:

  • Don't share food.
  • Don't share drinks.
  • Don't share clothing.
  • Throw away used tissues.
  • Wash hands frequently with soap and water.
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