Sick-Day Survival Guide
They’re a rite of passage for all parents: the dreaded stay-home-sick days. You’re in the middle of a big project at work and the school nurse calls, asking you to pick up your sick daughter. Or your son won’t get out of bed, and you’re already dressed and ready to leave for an important meeting when you feel his forehead and realize he’s feverish.
When a child must stay home from school, it’s often a major inconvenience for the whole family – but it’s important to get your kids the treatment they need before sending them back to class. In the midst of the concern and chaos, Virtua pediatrician Eric Dorn, MD, has a few great tips for how to handle the unfortunately common ailments of childhood.
The 24-Hour Rule
“The 24-Hour Rule” applies to most symptoms of acute illness. “Any child with a fever shouldn’t return to school until they have been fever-free for 24 hours,” says Dr. Dorn. “And a child who is diagnosed with a bacterial infection, such as strep throat, should wait 24 hours after beginning antibiotic treatment to go back to the classroom.” Vomiting and diarrhea also should have subsided for at least 24 hours. The reason for this rule? It’s pretty straightforward: “When it comes to antibiotics, most of the bacteria will be killed within the first 24 hours – though it’s still very, very important to continue the full course of treatment prescribed by the doctor. When it comes to fever, vomiting or diarrhea, you don’t want a child actively presenting these symptoms in school, as they will be more likely to infect their classmates.”
There are some exceptions to the rule, however. Take pinkeye: “If a child with pinkeye isn’t better within 24 hours of starting antibacterial eye drops, the source is probably viral and the child should stay home until the redness subsides.” Hand, foot and mouth disease and fifth disease are also a little trickier: “In these cases, children are most contagious before the rash appears, and they generally don’ t need to stay home until the rash clears.”
Better Hygiene = A Healthier Home
When it comes to treating a kiddo who’s home sick, good hygiene is crucial to keeping germs from spreading through the whole family. Hand-washing takes on a whole new level of importance, “paying special attention to the fingertips,” says Dr. Dorn. Remind the sick child to cough and sneeze into their elbow, not their hand. And if the child’s old enough, it’s probably a good idea to keep him or her quarantined to their own bed, as opposed to a shared living space like the family room couch. “If possible, keep one drinking cup and one set of utensils separate for the sick child, and consider changing out their toothbrush once the illness passes,” adds Dr. Dorn. “These precautions are especially crucial if there’s a baby sibling in the house. Infants are not equipped to handle illnesses as well as their big brothers and sisters.” What’s more, they can’t explain to their parent or doctor what’s bothering them, so high fevers and other startling symptoms will require a lot more testing and investigation.
To Keep Kids Feeling Great: Vaccinate & Communicate!
Unfortunately, more parents than ever before are choosing not to vaccinate their children, owing in large part to recent parenting trends and misinformation that’s spread through the Internet. Even more unfortunately, this has led to more children than ever before coming down with serious cases of pertussis (whooping cough), measles, and varicella (chicken pox). “These are alarming trends, and they remind us that all children need to be vaccinated,” says Dr. Dorn. Keeping up with scheduled immunizations will keep your children, and the children they go to school with, much safer; it will also significantly reduce the risk of missing a long stretch of school and workdays.
As a final note, when your child does come down with a communicable illness, it’s a good idea to notify your child’s teacher and the school nurse. This allows other parents to be on the lookout for symptoms in their own child, which is especially helpful with diseases like hand, foot and mouth and fifth disease that don’t present clearly until after the period of contagiousness passes. In the same vein, pay special attention when a note from the school nurse comes home, and use each instance as a reason to re-emphasize good hygiene habits for both yourself and your children.
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Eric Dorn, MD, Virtua pediatrician
Health Information: Hand-washing