Why Are Social Distancing Kids Still Getting Sick?

Why are some kids still getting sick if they are have been our of school and stuck in the house for weeks because of COVID-19?

COVID-19 has kept most kids out of school for some time now. Many are also out of daycare. And few are out playing with friends.

So why are some still getting sick? What else is going on with kids stuck at home while we are all social distancing to flatten the curve.

Why Are Social Distancing Kids Still Getting Sick?

The first thought of some parents and pediatric providers upon reading this might be, wait, what, kids are still getting sick?

Flu activity is low in most of the United States.
Flu activity is low in most of the United States.

And that’s because it does seem that in addition to flattening the COVID-19 curve, staying home from school and daycare, washing hands, and general social distancing techniques has worked to keeps from getting sick with the flu and most other contagious diseases!

So while pediatric providers are available to do telemedicine appointments, it certainly isn’t business as usual, even as their days have gotten quite unusual.

Some kids are still getting sick though, and while we know what you are thinking, most probably don’t have COVID-19.

Why?

It might be because:

  1. they aren’t social distancing as well as they think they are, keeping in mind that with many diseases, people can be contagious for a few days before they show symptoms and you can sometimes catch germs from touching fomites, or objects that a sick person has recently touched. That still doesn’t mean that they have COVID-19 though. If they have contact with others, they could catch almost anything.
  2. they caught something from someone who had a disease a few weeks or months ago and is still shedding. For example, some infants can shed RSV for as long as 4 weeks after they get better. And they can shed the virus that causes hand, foot and mouth disease (HFMD) for almost two months! Human parainfluenza viruses (HPIV), a common cause of colds and croup (seal bark cough), can also shed for many months.
  3. they caught something from someone who had a viral disease that causes a lifelong latent infection with periodic reactivation and shedding. Wait, what? While herpes (cold sores) is the main disease you might think of as causing a lifelong latent infection, there are others. You may not realize this, but after getting roseola (causes a high fever for a few days, followed by a rash after the fever breaks), HHV-6 (human herpes virus-6) kind of does the same thing. The big difference is that while you shed HHV-6 in your saliva from time to time, you don’t have any symptoms. You can get other folks sick though, especially older infants, once they lose the passive immunity they got from maternal antibodies.
  4. they have a sore throat caused by a virus, allergies, or reflux, but have tonsil stones and a positive strep test because they are a strep carrier. Nearly 20% of kids are thought to be carriers of strep, which means that every time they get tested, they will be positive, whether or not they actually have strep throat. That means that you don’t have to worry about testing the dog to see if they are carrying strep…
  5. they were exposed to a disease with a long incubation period. While the incubation period (the time between getting exposed to something to when you get sick) is just a few days for many diseases, it can be several weeks or months for others. In fact, your child might not get sick until 30 to 50 days after being exposed to someone with mono!
  6. they had a virus a few weeks ago and now have Gianotti Crosti syndrome (GCS), a post-viral rash on a child’s legs, arms, and buttocks. Although GCS might linger for weeks or months, it eventually goes away on its own. Another rash, this one likely caused by reactivation of the virus that causes roseola, might have you thinking your child is covered in ringworm (how would they get that if they haven’t left the house??). Instead, they likely have pityriasis rosea.
  7. their symptoms are caused by a non-contagious infectious disease that is spread from an animal or insect and not from another person – think Lyme disease (ticks), Cat scratch disease (cats), and West Nile virus (mosquitoes), etc.
  8. they got sick (bacteria, virus, or parasite) from contaminated lake or well water, which can cause diarrhea – giardiasis, Crypto, shigellosis, norovirus,
  9. they got sick (bacteria, virus, or parasite) from eating raw or contaminated food – giardiasis, shigellosis, norovirus, E. coli, salmonellosis
  10. their symptoms are caused by a non-infectious disease, which could be anything from allergies and asthma to poison ivy or herpes zoster (shingles).

It is also possible that their symptoms are being caused by anxiety, fear, and stress, which is not unexpected as they see schools closed, people getting sick and wearing masks, and are likely unsure about what’s coming next.

Has your child been sick recently?

Do you have a pet turtle or chickens in your backyard? They could be a source for Salmonella…

Do you understand why now?

Now call your pediatric provider if you have questions and need help getting them well, especially if they seem anxious or have extra stress from being home all of the time and away from school and their friends.

You especially want to call if you think that they might actually have COVID-19. While most kids have mild symptoms or are asymptomatic, if your child has a fever, cough, and difficulty breathing, you should call your pediatric provider or seek medical attention.

More on Covid-19 Kids Getting Sick

How Long Are You Contagious 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.

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.

Most school closures are not to prevent the spread of the flu and clean the school, but simply because so many kids and staff are already out sick.
Most school closures are not to prevent the spread of the flu and clean the school, but simply because so many kids and staff are already out sick.

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.

Teach your kids proper cough etiquette to help keep cold and flu germs from spreading.
Teach your kids proper cough etiquette to help keep cold and flu germs from spreading.

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

 

Incubation Periods of Childhood Diseases

The incubation period or latency period is the amount of time between being exposed to a contagious disease and when you begin developing symptoms.

The incubation period or latency period is the amount of time between being exposed to a contagious disease and when you begin developing symptoms.

This is not the same as the contagious period or the time during which your child can get others sick.

Incubation Period

Depending on the disease, the incubation period can be just a few hours or can last for several months. Knowing the incubation period for a disease can help you understand if your child is still at risk of getting sick or if he is in the clear — whether he is exposed to someone with strep throat, measles, or the flu.

“The incubation period is the time from exposure to the causative agent until the first symptoms develop and is characteristic for each disease agent.”

CDC

It can also help you figure out where and when your child got sick. For example, if your infant develops chickenpox, a vaccine-preventable disease, you can’t blame it on your cousin who doesn’t vaccinate her kids and who was visiting just three days ago. The incubation period for chickenpox is at least 10 to 21 days. So your child who is too young to be vaccinated likely caught chicken pox from someone he was exposed to a few weeks ago.

As we saw in recent outbreaks of Ebola and measles, a diseases incubation period can also help you figure out how long an exposed person needs to stay in quarantine. After all, if they don’t get sick once the incubation period is over, then they likely won’t get sick and can be released from quarantine.

Incubation Periods of Childhood Diseases

The incubation period for some common diseases includes:

  • Adenovirus – 2 to 14 days, leading to a sore throat, fever, and pink eye
  • vomiting after exposure to Bacillus cereus, a type of food poisoning – 30 minutes to 6 hours (short incubation period
  • Clostridium tetani (Tetanus) – 3 to 21 days
  • Chickenpox – 10 to 21 days
  • Epstein-Barr Virus Infections (Infectious Mononucleosis) – 30 to 50 days (long incubation period)
  • E. coli – 10 hours to 6 days (short incubation period)
  • E. coli O157:H7 – 1 to 8 days
  • Fifth disease – 4 to 21 days, with the classic ‘slapped cheek’ rash
  • Group A streptococcal (GAS) infection (strep throat) – 2 to 5 days
  • Group A streptococcal (GAS) infection (impetigo) – 7 to 10 days
  • Head lice (time for eggs to hatch) – 7 to 12 days
  • Herpes (cold sores) – 2 to 14 days
  • HIV – less than 1 year to over 15 years
  • Influenza (flu) – 1 to 4 days
  • Listeria monocytogenes (Listeriosis) – 1 day to 3 weeks, but can be as long as 2 months (long incubation period)
  • Measles – 7 to 18 days
  • Molluscum contagiosum – 2 weeks to 6 months (long incubation period)
  • Mycobacterium tuberculosis (TB) – 2 to 10 weeks (long incubation period)
  • Mycoplasma penumoniae (walking pneumonia) – 1 to 4 weeks
  • Norovirus ( the ‘cruise ship’ diarrhea virus) – 12 to 48 hours
  • Pinworms – 1 to 2 months
  • Rabies – 4 to 6 weeks, but can last years (very long incubation period)
  • Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) – 2 to 8 days
  • Rhinovirus (common cold) – 2 to 3 days, but may be up to 7 days
  • Roseola – about 9 to 10 days, leading to a few days of fever and then the classic rash once the fever breaks
  • Rotavirus – 1 to 3 days
  • gastrointestinal symptoms (diarrhea and vomiting) after exposure to Salmonella – 6 to 72 hours
  • Scabies – 4 to 6 weeks
  • Staphylococcus aureus – varies
  • Streptococcus pneumoniae (can cause pneumonia, meningitis, ear infections, and sinus infection, setc.) – 1 to 3 days
  • Whooping cough (pertussis) – 5 to 21 days

Knowing the incubation period of an illness isn’t always as helpful as it seems, though, as kids often have multiple exposures when kids around them are sick, especially if they are in school or daycare.

Conditions with long incubation periods can also fool you, as you might suspect a recent exposure, but it was really someone your child was around months ago.

More About Incubation Periods