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Sick kid? When to stay home and when to seek care

Kids and illness go hand in hand. But when a child gets sick, parents are often stuck with a tough decision – and sometimes a dose of guilt. Do I send them to school or keep them home? It’s a big deal, especially for working moms and dads.

Raging diarrhea or a high fever make it an easy call. But it’s harder to draw the line when your child has a runny nose, upset tummy or other mild symptoms.

Beyond listening to your parent gut, some basic guidelines may help make the choice clearer.


What are the most common illnesses that make kids sick?

We love them to death, but kids are walking petri dishes. It’s inevitable that they’re going to come down with something. 

The most common school-age illnesses and infections and their symptoms include:

  • Common cold: Runny nose, congestion, cough and watery eyes.
  • Flu: Fever, chills, body aches, sore throat, loss of appetite and fatigue.
  • COVID: Cough, fatigue, fever, sore throat, runny nose. Other symptoms may include vomiting and diarrhea.
  • RSV: Runny or stuffy nose, cough, sneezing, fever.
  • Strep throat: Fever, red and swollen tonsils, throat pain, stomach pain.
  • Earaches and infections: Ear pain, fever, trouble swallowing or sleeping, tugging at ear in younger children.
  • Gastroenteritis: Nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.
  • Pink eye (conjunctivitis) : Eye redness, swelling discharge, eye discomfort, itching, vision changes.


When is my child too sick for school?

As a general rule, your child should not go to school if they have:

  • A fever above 101 degrees F.
  • Vomiting or diarrhea.
  • Been diagnosed with strep throat or another infectious disease.
  • A persistent cough that disrupts normal activity.
  • Wheezing or difficulty breathing.
  • A new rash, especially if it comes with fever and itching.  
  • Pain from an earache, sore throat, headache or recent injury that is more than mild.
  • Drainage from eyes or nose that appears yellow or green. This is a common sign of pink eye (conjunctivitis).
  • Unusual lethargy or lack of appetite. If your child just doesn’t seem like themselves, it’s a good idea to keep them home and watch for signs of illness, especially when bugs are going around.

You know your child best. If they feel crumby and you don’t think they can’t make it comfortably through the school day, it’s probably a good idea to keep them home.


When is it ok to send my sick child to school?

The 24-hour rule is key for kids who experience a fever, diarrhea or vomiting. Your child should be able to return to school when they:

  • Are fever-free for at least 24 hours without the use of fever-reducing medication.
  • Have not had diarrhea for at least 24 hours.
  • Have not vomited for at least 24 hours.


Mild symptoms shouldn’t prevent your child from going to school and participating in normal activities. As long as they don’t have a fever, it’s probably ok for them to attend school when they have:

  • An improving cough.
  • A mild sore throat, headache or stomach ache.
  • Runny nose.
  • A noncontagious rash.
  • Ear infection with mild pain.


If your child is recovering from a contagious infection, additional guidelines should be followed:

  • Chickenpox: Sores should be dry and crusted over
  • Strep throat: Your child should be on antibiotic treatment for 24 hours.
  • Other contagious infections, such as rubella, whooping cough and measles: Ask a health care clinician or your school for specific guidelines.


Should I keep my child home for five days if they test positive for COVID?

On March 1, 2024, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced new COVID guidelines that say that people who test positive for COVID-19 no longer need to isolate for at least five days. The updated recommendations align with the CDC’s advice for other kinds of respiratory infections, including flu and RSV. 

If your child tests positive for COVID, they should stay home from school until they are fever-free without medication for at least 24 hours and their symptoms have been improving for 24 hours. 

The agency also recommends people still take additional precautions for the next five days, including limiting contact with others, improving ventilation and masking. These precautions are especially important for individuals who are around vulnerable individuals, such as those who are elderly or have weakened immune systems.

COVID (and other illness) protocols may vary from state to state and school to school. Contact your school for specific health and safety guidelines. 

If your child has COVID symptoms or had a recent exposure to the virus, Indigo offers COVID testing – and fast results.


What can I do to prevent my child from getting sick?

Kids can’t live in a bubble, but there are things you can do to help keep them healthy.

  • Teach them about hygiene. A few simple precautions can help stop the spread of germs. Remind your kids to:
    • Wash their hands.
    • Cover up when they sneeze or cough.
    • Avoid touching their eyes, nose or mouth.
    • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Make sure they’re up to date on immunizations. Vaccination is the best way to protect your child against many illnesses. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends flu and COVID vaccines for everyone ages 6 months and older. Learn more about vaccines for children.
  • Keep them on a good sleep routine. When kids don’t get enough sleep, it can weaken their immune system and increase the risk of getting sick. The American Academy of Pediatrics offers some helpful tips on healthy sleep habits.
  • Prescribe some outdoor playtime. Physical activity builds strong, healthy bodies that can fight off infections. When you add in the great outdoors, it reduces your child’s exposure to germs.
  • Promote healthy eating – and lots of water drinking. Hydration is key to a healthy immune system and the body needs proper nutrition to stay strong. 


When should I seek medical care for my sick child?

Most common childhood illnesses will run their course and can be treated at home. But if your child’s symptoms don’t improve or get worse after a couple of days, or you’re concerned about their health, it’s always a good idea to seek medical advice. 

Call or see a health care clinician if your child has:

  • A prolonged fever.
  • Persistent pain, such as an earache, sore throat, or headache or stomach ache.
  • Red or inflamed eyes with or without discharge.
  • Vomiting or diarrhea that continues for more than a couple of days.
  • Signs of dehydration, such as infrequent urination, dry lips and mouth, lack of tears when crying and irritability.
  • A rash.

If your child shows signs of severe illness, you should seek emergency treatment. Go to your nearest ER if your child has:

  • Fever higher than 103 degrees F.
  • Difficulty breathing.
  • Dizziness.
  • Confusion.
  • Bloody diarrhea or vomit
  • Persistent dizziness.
  • Severe headache or stomach ache
  • Severe muscle pain or weakness.
  • Fever or cough that returns after getting better or going away.
  • Seizures.
  • Bluish skin, lips or nails.


Indigo makes care easy – for you and your kiddo

If your child is under the weather, Indigo Urgent Care makes it easy and convenient to get the care they need. From colds and flu to rashes and earaches, Indigo treats most minor illnesses and injuries and offers rapid lab testing for strep throat, flu and COVID.

One of our friendly health care clinicians will evaluate your child’s symptoms and, if needed, prescribe medications to ease their symptoms and get them back to school. 

Simply walk into one of our neighborhood locations or book an appointment online. And when it’s inconvenient to make a trip to a clinic, schedule a same-day or next-day appointment with an Indigo Virtual Care clinician from your phone or favorite device.

In person and virtually, we’re here every day from 8 am to 8 pm.

A better way to get better.

Health care that’s friendly, easy, and centered around you.

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