A lot of guesswork happens when your child has a cold or the flu. You may question the best way to treat her symptoms or when to call the doctor. Also on that list is wondering when she’s well enough to return to her normal routine.

“If you wait for the last bit of cough or runny nose to fade out, it could be as long as a week to 10 days after any fever ends,” says Steve Lauer, MD, PhD, associate chairman of pediatrics at The University of Kansas Hospital. “Given the way that colds stack up in the wintertime, your child could be home a lot.”

So at what point isit OK for your child to get back in the swing of things? These guidelines can help you decide.

When Can My Child Go Back to School?

In general, kids can return to their usual routine if they haven’t had a fever higher than 100 degrees, vomiting, or diarrhea for 24 hours. They should be able to stay fever-free without medicine. “It’s not fair to give a child ibuprofen or acetaminophen at 7 a.m. and send them to school at 8,” Lauer says.

Make sure your kid is drinking -- and peeing -- a normal amount so you know she’s hydrated. And you’ll want to check that any leftover symptoms, like coughing, are under control so she doesn’t distract the rest of her class.

“While they don't have to be 100% normal to return, if your child just seems ‘not themselves,’ trust your parental instincts and have them stay home an extra day,” Lauer says.

When Can They Have a Play Date?

Kids with the flu are most contagious around the time their symptoms start, plus 5 to 7 days after that. With that in mind, wait a week to schedule a play date. If your child has a condition that makes her immune system weak, she may need even longer to fully recover.

Cold symptoms show up 1 to 3 days after your child has picked up the germs. Those first few days of a runny nose, coughing, and sneezing are when she’s most likely to get others sick. But you’ll still want to keep her away from friends for 4-5 days after that.

In fact, she will be contagious as long as her cold symptoms last -- which could be up to 3 weeks. Because of that, be careful letting her around babies and very young kids. The virus that caused her cold could make an infant severely ill.

When Can They Get Back to Sports?

“Most kids and teens want to go back sooner than they should,” says Danelle Fisher, MD, chairwoman of pediatrics at Providence Saint John’s Health Center. “But they absolutely can’t with a fever, and not if running or playing will worsen symptoms like coughing.”

To return to the fast pace and physical effort of sports, your child should be free of symptoms for about 48-72 hours. She should also be eating and drinking well enough to have the energy she needs to keep up with the rest of her team.

When Can They Have a Sleepover?

The same guidelines for sports practices and games apply to a slumber party. Your child needs to feel well enough to enjoy hours of activity, not to mention miss out on a good night’s sleep. And keep in mind: Your child will be in close quarters with her friends for many hours. “You don't want to be the parent whose sick kid spreads a virus to other families,” Lauer says. 

When in doubt about whether your child is still sick or healthy enough, “always trust your gut,” Fisher says. “Keep your child home and out of activities when you feel she’s too sick to participate and enjoy them.”

There’s no hard and fast timeline for getting over a cold or the flu. Some viruses last longer than others.  Since you know your child best, you’ll need to tailor her return to school and “real life” based on how she feels and what you think is best.

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