When Madelyn Felushko woke up on a weekday feeling slightly achy, her dad, Dan Felushko, wondered whether she was too sick for school. “She really wanted to go because her class was preparing for a Valentine’s Day party,” says the Markham, Ont., father of four.
Madelyn, then eight, insisted she could handle the day, so Felushko sent her off as usual. But later that morning came the dreaded call. “She’d thrown up all over the class and was really embarrassed,” he recalls. “It turned out to be the stomach flu.”
Felushko felt a pang of guilt wondering if he should have kept Madelyn home that day. Did he miss any signs she was too sick to go to school? Not likely, says Dr. Henry Ukpeh, a paediatrician based in Trail, BC. “What made Madelyn vomit may have happened at school and would have been unpredictable,” he says, citing smells or other environmental factors as potential triggers.
In fact, Ukpeh advises parents that if their little ones say they feel well enough for an active day, sending them to school might be the best medicine. “Children may be able to recover from transient illnesses such as colds or gastroenteritis sooner if they’re active rather than lying at home.”
But no matter how well your little one may claim to be, certain symptoms are clear indicators she’s too sick to go to school. Here’s what to watch out for with some common illnesses:
Runny nose and congestion
Kids can get between three and eight upper-respiratory infections including common colds per year, according to Statistics Canada, and not every one of them warrants a sick day. “Many children that have runny noses are not sick—they’re eating, playing and happy,” Ukpeh says. If your child fits that category, send her to school with extra tissues and hand sanitizer.
Keep them home from school if a runny nose is accompanied by a lack of appetite, lethargy or a distinct change in mood, which could signal something more serious is developing. Likewise if you notice wheezing or breathing difficulty of any sort, it’s time to pay your paediatrician a visit.
Send them back as soon as they’re feeling better. Colds and flu are most infectious in the first two or three days, so by the time your child starts showing symptoms, she’s likely no longer contagious.
A raised temperature doesn’t always signal serious illness. “Many viruses manifest as a low-grade fever, but they’re not clinically significant,” says Ukpeh. It’s fine to send children to school with a slight fever, provided they feel well enough, are attentive and playing, and your school or daycare will permit it.
Keep them home from school if you detect a temperature of 38.5°C (101.4°F) or higher. If the fever persists for longer than three days or is accompanied by symptoms such as listlessness, vomiting or poor eye contact, call your doctor immediately.
Send them back when the temperature breaks and they’re feeling more energetic.
Diarrhea and vomiting
It’s tough to pin down the cause of diarrhea and vomiting—anything from food poisoning to lactose intolerance or gastroenteritis (the virus commonly known as stomach flu) could be the culprit. When deciding if your child is well enough to go to school, take her overall wellness and ability to manage symptoms into account.
Keep them home from school if they’re experiencing symptoms that will disrupt their day. Ukpeh recommends children younger than five stay home because they’re more prone to accidents and poor handwashing, which can spread viral gastroenteritis. Older children, however, may be able to manage without incident provided they feel well enough and trips to the bathroom aren’t interrupting their usual routine. You’ll know best how well your child can cope. But always keep them home from school if you suspect dehydration, or if diarrhea and vomiting are accompanied by pain or a fever of 38.5°C or higher.
Send them back when the symptoms subside. If your child is feeling better and doesn’t experience vomiting or loose stool within a half hour after breakfast, she’s good to go.