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Today’s lesson: How to tell when your child is too sick to go to school

» Trust your gut

» The common cold

» Sinus infection

» Ear infection

» Sore throat

» Strep throat

» The flu

When to stay home

Keep your child home if he or she has:

  • a temperature of more than 100• F
  • dizziness, weakness or flulike symptoms
  • a runny nose with thick green or yellow mucus
  • a cough or congestion that interferes with breathing
  • a severe headache
  • diarrhea
  • vomiting
  • a rash of unknown origin
  • thick mucus draining from the eye

Your child wakes up in the morning feeling miserable, complaining of a stuffy nose and a sore throat. She has no fever. Should you keep her home or send her to school? It’s not a trick question—just a common dilemma for many parents who struggle to make the right choice.

Sniffles alone are not a reason to keep your child home. The common cold is just that—common—and you have to expect a certain amount of sneezes and coughs when cold weather arrives. In fact, say experts, plan on your youngster coming down with anywhere from three to 12 colds this season. Your child’s immune system is still developing, making him or her a magnet for the 200 plus cold-causing viruses. Kids also pass germs along easily because they constantly have their hands in their mouths, on other kids and on toys.

Trust your gut

Without fever as your guide, you’ll need to rely on your instincts and your ability to recognize the signs of illness in your child. Is he or she eating well? Having trouble sleeping? Waking at night complaining of a scratchy throat or an earache? If so, these should be your warning signs that something other than a simple cold may be causing the symptoms. You should be concerned if the cough is heavy and accompanied by a steady stream of mucus. Watch, too, to see whether the cough is accompanied by rapid or labored breathing. (See “When to Stay Home.”)

A kid who’s feeling under the weather is probably not going to get much out of school. Keeping your child home as a precaution may not be a bad idea, especially if you can keep an eye on him or her and watch for additional symptoms. Consult your child’s pediatrician for advice.

Respiratory ailments can be particularly troublesome when you’re trying to decide if your child should stay home. Here’s a rundown of some common conditions.

The common cold

Forget what you’ve heard about sitting in a drafty room or going outside without a sweater. Colds are caused by viral infections and will go away on their own. For that reason, antibiotics won’t work nor do they provide relief.

What you can do: Teach your child how to blow his or her nose by closing one nostril with a finger and blowing with the other nostril. A cool-mist humidifier or a steamy bathroom may also provide relief. This loosens congestion and helps your child breathe easier. You can also try a saline (saltwater) nasal solution or, for little ones, try a bulb syringe.

Sinus infection

Suspect a sinus infection if your child has had a cold for 10 days or more. Other signs include a constant runny nose that has not gotten better; coughing that gets worse at night; tenderness of the face from swollen sinuses; and a headache. Your child will need an antibiotic.

Ear infection

An ear infection often comes on the heels of an upper-respiratory infection. Telltale signs include fever, ear pain, drainage, irritability and tugging and pulling on the ear. Your child will need an antibiotic to recover.

Sore throat

A mild sore throat accompanying a cold does not call for specific medical treatment. Since the sore throat is a symptom, your goal is to provide as much relief as you can. Warm and cool liquids can be soothing options. Try hot water with lemon or ice cubes made out of Gatorade. Children ages 8 and older can gargle with warm saltwater.

If the sore throat is accompanied by a fever or continues for several days, consult your pediatrician.

Strep throat

Strep throat is a contagious bacterial infection. Left untreated, it can lead to rheumatic fever or scarlet fever. Be on the lookout for white spots on a red throat, difficulty swallowing, swollen glands, fever and general malaise. If you know strep has been going around your school or day-care center, you should take your child to the pediatrician for a strep test. Your child will need an antibiotic and will not be allowed to return to school until he or she has been on the medicine for 24 hours.

The flu

The flu is often confused with the common cold. While both are viral infections involving the upper-respiratory tract, the flu is more serious, involving a higher fever, a cough, a sore throat, a stuffy or runny nose, a headache, a loss of appetite, muscle aches and fatigue. Over-the-counter medications may help, though you generally need to let the illness run its course.

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