Public Health

Go to School or Stay Home: Your Guide to Colds, Coughs and Flu

A mom comforts her son while he's sneezing at home.

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Sometimes, it's easy to tell when your child is too sick to go to school. If they're violently ill, vomiting, running a high fever, or have a contagious condition like pink eye, then you'll want to keep them home.

Unfortunately, it's not always that straightforward. After you've spent a night tossing and turning because they have a scratchy throat and a cough, are running a low-grade fever, or just generally don't feel good, you might wonder if it's still okay to send them to school.

Although you don't want to expose their whole class to germs if they're contagious, it's hard to tell if it's worth keeping them home (and taking the day off of work to care for them).

It's rarely easy to make the call because there's so much gray area, but at AdventHealth, we're here to help.

Here are a few of the most common conditions, and tips on how to make your stay-or-go decision before the start of the school day.


Common colds are the main reason children miss school and adults miss work. Each year in the United States, there are millions of cases of the common cold. Adults average 2-3 colds per year and children have even more, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Colds are so common that if kids stayed home every time they had one, they'd never graduate.  

It's all right to send them to school with a case of the sniffles as long as they follow some tips to keep from spreading their germs.

Teach your child to wash their hands frequently, and ways to sneeze to avoid other people. Either use their elbow, or a tissue to keep the impact to a minimum.

Conjunctivitis a.k.a. Pink Eye

Pink eye is incredibly common among school-age children, and parents and teachers who spend a lot of time with them can pick it up too.

One of the reasons it's so common is because it's highly contagious. Most cases are caused by a virus, which means that you can't treat it with an antibiotic and it needs to run its course. However, bacterial conjunctivitis will require an antibiotic, so be sure to visit your doctor to get the right treatment.

Pink eye usually lasts less than a week, but you'll need to keep your child home until their doctor gives them the green light to head back to school.


Symptoms like a sore throat, cough, and mild congestion are sometimes tricky when you're trying to decide just how sick your child is.

It's best to keep an eye on their behavior at home and then make the call. If, for example, your little one has a stuffy nose but is still running around the house, then chances are they are well enough to head to school.

On the other hand, if they've been coughing all night, wake up groggy, and don’t have the motivation to get out of bed, it might be a good idea to keep them home and let them rest. If their cough is accompanied by other COVID-19 symptoms, such as shortness of breath and a fever, you should definitely call their pediatrician and keep them home.


If your child is running a fever of 101°F or higher, that's a sure sign of illness, and you'll want to keep them home. Make sure that their fever is under control without medication for at least 24 hours and call their doctor to rule out coronavirus before sending them back to school.

If they're running a low-grade fever, it's your call on whether they are well enough to go to school. If they seem lethargic and have other symptoms in combination with a fever, it might be smart to give them a day to rest and let their body fight off the infection.


Kids with flu-like symptoms should stay home until they have been fever-free for at least 24-hours. If they're still running a fever and get sent to school, they could spread the flu and are also more at risk for catching another bug because of their lower immune system.


Coronavirus, compared to the flu, can have a longer window between exposure and symptoms showing, which is currently thought to be anywhere from two to 14 days. If you suspect your child has coronavirus or are awaiting test results, keep them away from others until they are confirmed negative and receive the OK from their doctor.

The  CDC reports  that the main symptoms of coronavirus are the following:

  • Cough (dry cough)
  • Shortness of breath

Or at least two of these symptoms:

  • Chills
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Muscle pain
  • New loss of taste or smell
  • Repeated shaking with chills
  • Sore throat
  • Tiredness

The  World Health Organization (WHO)  explains that severe cases of COVID-19 can cause more life-threatening symptoms such as pneumonia, acute respiratory distress syndrome, kidney failure and death.


Rashes are tricky because there are so many different types, but it's always a good idea to keep your child home and get them to a doctor right away.

If they are diagnosed with something contagious, like chickenpox or bacterial meningitis, you won't want them heading into the classroom.

If it's something that can't spread, their school will appreciate the doctor's note confirming that they're good to go.

Lack of Energy

Kids who lose their appetite, are clingy or lethargic, complain of pain, or who just don't seem to be acting like themselves should also take a sick day.

Vomiting and Diarrhea

An upset stomach is a definite cause to stay home. Keep them out of school until it passes plus an additional 24 hours.

Tips for Working Parents

If you're a working parent, we know it's not always easy to take time off to care for a sick child. Here are a few ideas to consider before your child becomes ill:

  • Save some personal days: For days like these, the easiest way out is to use paid time off. Save a few extra hours for child emergencies. If your company doesn't provide PTO, talk to your supervisor in advance about the best plan of action if your child wakes up sick.
  • Have an emergency sitter list: Start a list of family, friends or care providers who you're comfortable letting into your family bubble and who could possibly be available at short notice. Keep their phone numbers and availability within reach.
  • Watch for warning signs: Be aware of early warning signs in your child that could predict an oncoming illness. Does your child get a tickle in her throat or a headache? Recognize the signs and tend to these immediately to try to ward off illness.

Get the Flu Vaccine

Flu vaccines are here, and now’s a great time to make an appointment to help protect your child. Find a pediatrician near you and make an appointment for your child’s flu shot or Search the AdventHealth Network of Physicians.

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