Knowing When to Keep Sick Ones Home

It’s that time of year. Mother Nature is bipolar, giving us temperatures ranging from blazing to freezing in a matter of hours. Everyone is trapped indoors, coughing. Sniffles begin, and germs go wild. No matter how many times you say, “Please cover your mouth when you cough/sneeze,” or, “Please don’t wipe your nose with your hand (or shirt, or sofa cushion),” kids are kids, and germs spread. Littles get sick, and routines get upended. So how do you decide when it’s OK to send your germy little out into the world?

Thanks to a sick cousin over the holidays, my Little came down with something. That’s somewhat unusual, as we’ve been pretty lucky. In spite of being in Mom’s Day Out or some version of school since he was two, Little has had more issues with allergies than with germs. Yes, he coughs and hacks, but that’s due to his body reacting to allergens, not germs, so he often goes to school even when he sounds like a two-pack-a-day smoker.

With whatever he picked up, we had to make the call that he couldn’t go to a birthday party he had been looking forward to for weeks. But he had a fever, was coughing nonstop, and hadn’t done much but veg all day. He actually slept right through the party, then woke up saying he was ready to go. When I explained he couldn’t and dealt with the tears, we talked about how we didn’t want to make the birthday girl sick on her birthday. What sort of present is that??

Just about every school, day care, and childcare center has a policy regarding fever, vomiting, and diarrhea, hoping that parents will understand why children in those states should stay home. The moms’ group I belong to has a policy as well—we want to spend healthy time together with our kids, not spread something like wildfire through our playgroups.

So what about those days when foreheads are warmer than they should be and noses are running overtime? How do you know it’s time to quarantine your little and keep germs at home? It’s not just school, daycare, or birthday parties; it’s also sports practice, play dates, story time, and anywhere that your little could spread whatever bug to everyone else. I’m not a medical expert, but for me, it boils down to being a responsible parent and trying not to be the one who infects everyone we know.

By the way, I’m far from a germophobe. While I do carry hand sanitizer and try to get my little to wash his hands, the five-second rule is regularly applied in my house, and I do believe in the Nietzsche quote, “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.” However, I also keenly remember the movie Outbreak. There’s a scene that pops into my head every time someone coughs or sneezes: a pre-Grey’s Anatomy, not-yet-sexy Patrick Dempsey coughs in a movie theater, and you see the germs spread from him to everyone else in the audience. That image makes me shiver—and makes you never want to share popcorn with anyone again.

How can you help keep your kids—and everyone else—healthy this winter? Wash those hands, try to get your kids to use the “vampire cough method,” where you cough or sneeze into your elbow/sleeve instead of your hand, and use common sense (or try following these guidelines from the Center for Disease Control). And if your little seems sick, stay at home. How do you know? Use your mama intuition as a guide and answer some basic questions:

  • Can my child participate in the activity? For my little, having his regular allergy cough or stuffy nose doesn’t mean he can’t be in the classroom or at a play date. Sometimes his coughing is too much for swimming or other sports, but it doesn’t keep him from playing with his friends: he’s not sick; it’s allergies. But if the cough/congestion is due to germs—and capable of spreading germs—he’d have to sit out, period. I don’t believe in making other mamas deal with sick kids because my kid hacked germs on theirs.
  • Any fever? Well, that’s a non-starter for me. Fever means the body is fighting an infection, so that means my child can infect others, and I keep him home. Yes, it requires rearranging schedules and jumping through hoops at times, but it’s what I feel we need to do. (Note: many schools/day cares have specific policies about fever and when a child can return, so be sure you follow those guidelines. Usually children can’t return to school/daycare until at least 24 hours after a fever has broken on its own, meaning without the use of fever-reducing medicines.)
  • Any tummy trouble? That’s another non-negotiable for me. If there’s nausea, diarrhea, or vomiting, no way will we be headed anywhere. First of all, I don’t want to share that with anyone, but I also don’t want to be in the car or out in public if something really kicks in. (No one wants to be the mom in the car wash line trying to get THAT out of your swagger wagon.) We’ve all been there. I think every mom I know has had the pleasure of some sort of public vomiting or diarrhea display. It’s almost like a mom’s badge of pride. Personally, I’ve caught vomit in my hands more times than I can count. But it’s not a club I want to force on my mom friends.
  • Any rash/puss/oozing/red eyes? This is always a fun one. And I err on the side of caution. How do you know when that rash is just a heat rash or something more? Or if that red goopy eye is really pink eye? Until you’re dealing with it, you usually don’t, and that’s the problem. It could be allergies (we’ve had pink eye due to allergies, totally non-transferable) or a new food allergy. (Anyone else’s kid get a rash when they touch, not eat, peanut butter? We had that for a few months around the age of 1.) Or that rash could be Hand Foot and Mouth. Or chicken pox. (My kid caught that from his dad—your children aren’t fully immune until after their second vaccination). Usually by the time you know any of these for sure, you’ve exposed others. And then you get to call the school/day care to let them know and send out that email to your playgroup, “Hey, remember what I thought was a heat rash? Well, it’s not, so wash everything my kid touched. Sorry!” And as for school/day care, pinkeye or strep throat usually requires a day at home, too.

I hope you have a healthy winter season, and if a germ manages to catch you or your littles, I hope your quarantine is short and your recovery is fast. I also hope I don’t see you coughing in a movie theater any time soon. Now, pass that hand sanitizer!

An Army brat who came to Texas for college and ultimately managed to make the Lone Star State her permanent home, Dawn became a mom “AMA” (advanced maternal age), giving her the opportunity to use a stroller vs. a walker as she navigates the world of motherhood. Her growing up way too fast native Texan loves all things Star Wars, Legos, dinosaurs and keeping his parents on their toes. When she’s not busy parenting the original strong-willed child, Dawn runs Tale to Tell Communications, a San Antonio-based PR and marketing agency. An award-winning writer, Dawn also contributes to San Antonio Woman, Rio Magazine and Texas Lifestyle Magazine. She and her family enjoy exploring all that San Antonio has to offer, going on adventures and playing tourist together as much as possible. Favorite Restaurant: Clementine Favorite Landmark: The beauty of the River Walk, especially La Villita Favorite San Antonio Tradition: Celebrating anything and everything with color, music and food


  1. I’m a SAHM and fully recognize it is infinitely easier for me to keep my kids home when they’re sick. I am fully empathic to parents who have to call in to work to keep their kids home. I can understand needing to make a judgment call on whether to send your kid to daycare or school when you are certain what you’re dealing with. What really annoys me is when sick kids are taken to unnecessary places: Football, play dates, church, birthday party, etc. Skipping those things rarely involves taking time off work but means you don’t spread those germs. Taking sick kids to those events is selfish, irresponsible and downright rude.

    • Thanks, Erin, for weighing in. I’m in your camp. I hated to disappoint my little guy, but made the call to keep him home from a friend’s birthday party this month because I didn’t want to share his ugly cold. We also missed swimming. Though the pool says you can come unless it’s stomach-related, a.) he didn’t feel well enough to swim and b.) the way he was coughing and sneezing, we would have gotten his coach and fellow swimmers sick. It’s never fun for them to be sick, and I certainly don’t like navigating a sick and disappointed kid, but I’d rather take that hit than spread germs.

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