Do your kids have the flu?
When their kids have the flu, one of the first questions most parents have, after all of the ones about how they can get them better as quickly as possible, is how long will they be contagious?
How Long Is the Flu Contagious?
Technically, when you have the flu, you are contagious for about a week after becoming sick.
And you become sick about one to four days after being exposed to someone else with the flu – that’s the incubation period.
“Most experts believe that flu viruses spread mainly by droplets made when people with flu cough, sneeze or talk. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby. Less often, a person might also get flu by touching a surface or object that has flu virus on it and then touching their own mouth, eyes or possibly their nose.”
CDC on Information for Schools
That’s why the flu spreads so easily and it is hard to control flu outbreaks and epidemics once they begin.
Another reason it spreads so easily is that most people are contagious the day before they even begin to develop flu symptoms!
And again, they then remain contagious for another five to seven days.
When Can You Return to School with the Flu?
Does that mean kids with the flu have to stay home for at least seven days?
Not usually, unless they have a fever for that long, or severe flu symptoms, which is definitely a possibility for some kids with the flu.
“Those who get flu-like symptoms at school should go home and stay home until at least 24 hours after they no longer have a fever or signs of a fever without the use of fever-reducing medicine.”
CDC on Information for Schools
In general, as with many other childhood illnesses, you can return to school or daycare once your child is feeling better and is fever free for at least 24 hours.
Keep in mind that even if they don’t have a fever, if your child still isn’t feeling well and isn’t going to be able to participate in typical activities, then they should probably still stay home.
But Are They Still Contagious?
Many childhood diseases have contagious periods that are far longer than most folks imagine. That’s because we continue to shed viral particles even as we are getting better, and sometimes, even once we no longer have symptoms.
For example, some infants with rotavirus are contagious for up to 10 days and some with RSV are contagious for as long as 4 weeks!
Like the child with flu that doesn’t have a fever, that doesn’t mean that these kids have to stay out of school or daycare for that whole time. But since they are still contagious, it does raise the issue of what to do about non-essential activities.
Should you keep going to playdates after your child had the flu? How about the daycare at church or the gym?
In general, you should probably avoid non-essential activities while your kids are still recovering from an illness, even if they feel better, because they are likely still contagious.
Most parents have the expectation that their own kids won’t be exposed to someone who is sick in these settings.
So you probably don’t want to bring your sick kid to a playdate or birthday party, etc., even if he is already back in school or daycare.
And whether they have a cold or the flu or another illness, teach your kids to decrease their chances of getting sick by washing their hands properly, not sharing drinks (bring a water bottle to school), and properly covering their own coughs and sneezes. They should also learn to avoid putting things in the mouth (fingers or their pencil, etc.) or rubbing their eyes, as that helps germs that could have made their way onto their hands get into their body and make them sick.
What to Know About Staying Home When You Have the Flu
Although your child may be contagious with the flu for up to a week, your child only has to stay home from school or day care until they are feeling better and are fever free for at least 24 hours.
More About Staying Home When You Have the Flu
- CDC – Information for Schools
- CDC – The Flu:A Guide for Parents
- CDC – When & How to Wash Your Hands
- AAP – When to Keep Your Child Home from Child Care
- AAP – Influenza Prevention and Control: Strategies for Early Education and Child Care Programs
- AAP – Germ Prevention Strategies
- CDC – Guidance for School Administrators to Help Reduce the Spread of Seasonal Influenza in K-12 Schools
- CDC – Preventing the Flu: Good Health Habits Can Help Stop Germs
- CDC – Stopping the Spread of Germs at Home, Work & School
- Communicable Disease Chart for Schools and Child-Care Centers
- Inclusion/Exclusion Due to Illness
Last Updated on January 28, 2018 by Vincent Iannelli, MD