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How Long Should I Stay Home With a Cold or the Flu?

Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on May 18, 2021

You've been home sick a couple days, and there's only so much daytime television you can take. You're ready to go back to work.

But common colds and the flu are very contagious. There are millions of cases of these upper respiratory infections every year. And colds are the biggest reason kids miss school and adults miss work.

If you've been sick with a cold or flu, how long are you supposed to stay home, and when should you go back to your everyday routine?

How Long to Stay Home

Experts generally agree that it's best to stay home as long as you have severe symptoms, like a cough with mucus, vomiting, diarrhea, fever, or fatigue, because you may be contagious. And the CDC recommends staying home at least 24 hours after your fever goes away unless you need to leave the house for medical care or other urgent reasons.

Also, rest is an important part of getting over any illness, so there's another reason to take it easy while you feel sick.

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How quickly you recover from a cold or the flu depends on how healthy you are. In general, healthy people usually get over a cold in 7 to 10 days. Flu symptoms, including fever, should go away after about 5 days, but you may still have a cough and feel weak a few days longer. All your symptoms should be gone within 1 to 2 weeks.

When you go back to work or school, make sure to cover your mouth when you cough and wash your hands often so you don't spread the illness to other people.

These viruses can develop into serious illnesses like pneumonia in people who have weak immune systems, asthma, or other respiratory conditions. So if you have a chronic illness, your healing time may be different.

How Colds and Flu Spread

Colds are most contagious in the first 2 to 4 days after symptoms start. But they can spread up to a few weeks after that. Your symptoms will usually show up 2 to 3 days after you've been infected, so you may not know you're sick when you first get the virus.

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You can give other people your cold just by being around them. Your sneezes and coughs can send virus particles as far as 12 feet through the air where they can land in someone's mouth or nose or be inhaled into the lungs. Others can also catch your cold if they touch you or something you've come into contact with and then touch their mouth or nose.

Like the common cold, the flu is caused by a virus, and it's likely to spread through coughs, sneezes, or even talking. Those actions can send droplets up to 6 feet away. It's also possible to get the flu by touching something with the virus on it and then touching your mouth or nose, but that's less likely.

You can be contagious before you even know you're sick. The virus usually enters your body 1 to 4 days before you have any symptoms, and you can give it to someone a day before you feel anything up to 5 to 7 days after. And kids are contagious even longer. They can spread the virus for another week.

Some people never show symptoms but can still give it to others.

Any Time Your Child Is Sick

If your child is sick, it's best for them to stay home until they feel well again. If they have a fever, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or any kind of pain, aren't hungry, or seem extra tired or clingy, they should stay home.

How do you know when to keep your child home from school? The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends you answer a few key questions:

  1. Does your child have a fever? Fevers of 101 F or more are generally a sign of illness, so children should stay home.
  2. Is your child well enough to participate in class? If they seem too run-down to get much out of their lessons, keep them home.
  3. Do they have an illness like the flu or pinkeye? If you think they might, don't let them go back to school until you know they're not contagious anymore. If possible, have them attend online classes.

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Check with your child's day care or school before you send them back to their regular schedules. Many places have rules about how long kids need to stay home. Usually it's at least a full day after they don't have any fever without medication.

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Here’s what you need to keep an eye on:

Fever is a sign that your body is fighting the germs that are making you sick. It’s a common symptom of infections like flu. If it’s 101 F or higher, wait until your child is fever-free for at least 24 hours before sending them back to school.

Diarrhea happens because of an infection, food poisoning, or medications like antibiotics. It can lead to dehydration, so give them a lot of fluids to drink. Keep your child home until their stools are solid and your doctor gives the OK.

Vomiting is another way our bodies get rid of germs. It’s usually caused by a stomach virus or infection. Keep your child at home if they have vomited twice or more in the last 24 hours. They can go back to school after their symptoms clear up or the doctor says they're no longer contagious.

Severe cough and cold symptoms should keep your child home. A serious cough could be a symptom of contagious conditions like whooping cough, viral bronchitis, or croup. It can also be a warning sign of asthma or allergies.

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Sore throats can be a symptom of a common cold or strep. If they have a mild cold, they can go to school. If your child has been diagnosed with strep throat, keep them at home for at least 24 hours after they start antibiotics.

Pinkeye (conjunctivitis) is contagious, and a child should stay home for the first 24 hours after treatment begins. Symptoms include eye redness, irritation, swelling, and pus.

Headaches can be a symptom of contagious illnesses like the stomach flu, flu, meningitis, and strep throat. Experts disagree on whether a child should be kept home. If they don't have any other signs of illness and feel fine, they can go to school.

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Rashes can be a sign of contagious illnesses like chickenpox, bacterial meningitis, or impetigo (a skin infection). Keep your child home until they've been diagnosed. They can head back to the classroom after their symptoms are gone and the doctor gives the OK.

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Ear infections aren't contagious. There's no need to keep a child with a mild earache home, as long as they feel well enough to concentrate.

Mild cold or respiratory symptoms don’t have to sideline your kid, but keep in mind that even if their nose runs clear and their cough is mild, they may pass the virus to somebody else.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

CDC: "Common Colds: Protect Yourself and Others," "How Flu Spreads," "Cold Versus Flu," "The Flu: What to Do If You Get Sick."

KidsHealth.org: "Common Colds: Protect Yourself and Others," "Is My Child Too Sick to Go to School?"

Massachusetts Department of Public Health: "Colds versus Flu: How to Tell the Difference."

Mayo Clinic: "Common Cold: Self-management."

Center for Young Women's Health: "Colds and Flu: General Information."

Government of South Australia: "Colds & Flu Questions & Answers."

American Academy of Pediatrics: "Keeping a Child Home From School."

Communicable Disease Epidemiology Program, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment: "Infectious Disease in School Settings."

New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene: "What You Can Do to Stop Disease in Your Child's Day Care Center."

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