The Etiquette of Germs

The Etiquette of Germs


A few months ago I rode with my daughter in an ambulance, watching as two EMTs administered oxygen and medication to my lifeless seven year old. I remember stretching out my arm as far as I could from my jump seat to touch her, to give her whatever comfort I could as the driver raced through traffic to the nearest children’s hospital. It was during those next terrifying few days in the ICU that I realized I needed to write this post, one that I have meaning to write every since she was a baby. Whether you are a complete germaphobe, or have a laissez-faire (“It’s good for their immune systems!”) attitude toward germs, I hope you will consider this “thoughtful” approach when deciding to go out while sick or send your sick children to school.

My daughter has chronic lung disease. While she is more susceptible to things like walking pneumonia (which she had in December), she is thankfully strong enough to fight them if found and treated early. But this wasn’t always the case.

Seven years ago she was born severely premature – and very sick. When we left the NICU we were told not to take her out in public places (malls, Sunday school, etc.) for two winters. Yes, you read that right: Two winters. If our daughter got RSV, or some other virus, she could face lifelong health issues or even death.

Understandably, my husband and I became complete germaphobes. We had Purel pumps all over our house and our hands were dried and cracked from using so much of it.

Thankfully, our sweet family and friends were quite sensitive to this issue (even though they thought we were a little high-strung!). They wouldn’t dare come over with a cough or cold. And they would cancel playdates with our oldest daughter if another of their children became ill.

But we had one incident that terribly upset me and got me thinking about the topic of etiquette and germs.

Here’s what happened: A neighbor asked if we wanted to meet at the park for a picnic (open air settings were safe as long as not too crowded). It was a nice Spring day so I put my then one year old in the double BOB stroller with the big canopy pulled over her.

When we arrived at the park, we all sat down at the picnic table when my neighbor quipped about her daughter, “Oh and y’all need to stay away from Lucy, she has a 101 fever.”

My first thought was to ask myself why any mother would bring a sick child to the playground? (Answer: the mom wanted to get out of the house. Totally “get” that feeling even though it’s totally putting her needs above her child’s.)

My second thought was one of anger and hurt. She knows how vulnerable my baby is and that her toddler is surely going to be nearby – does she not care? Why would she risk my daughter’s health because she wanted to get out of the house? 

After a few minutes of panic, I made an excuse for why we needed to leave. I strapped my my screaming three year old into the stroller (who did not understand why we had to leave the park after 10 minutes) and walked home in tears.

Those first few years of having a preemie with Chronic Lung Disease were frustrating and scary. We could do so much to protect her in our home environment but what we couldn’t do was protect her from people who willingly sent their sick children (or themselves!) out into the world – to school, to ballet class, to the mall. My biggest fear was that my my older daughter would get sick and bring those germs back home to our vulnerable baby.

You see, what many parents don’t understand is that it’s not their child’s healthy peers who are necessarily at risk, but the family members with weakened immune systems. The elderly grandmother, the preemie baby, the sister who has debilitating asthma, the brother who requires 24 hour nursing care. I guarantee you there is a parent at your child’s school who is battling cancer and would plead with you not send your sick child to school.

Trust me, I understand limited sick days at work, not wanting to miss a hair appointment (I totally get that!) or not wanting your child’s makeup work to pile up (such a doozie because you have to make them do it!). But let’s be honest: we are putting our own wants and needs above others’ when we do make these choices. I think most of us (or at least my readers!) really want to do the right thing, but just don’t realize realize the harm they may be causing by sending a sick child to school. (Hence this post!)

So here’s how to be thoughtful and considerate when making the following decisions:

When to keep your child home from school…

So how do you know when to keep a child home from school? Most of it is common sense, but ask yourselves these questions from the American Academy of Pediatrics:

  1. Can your child participate normally in school or other activities? If he is lethargic and whiny, he’s probably not going to do well in school.
  2. Is your child going to require more attention and care than usual, taking away from other the care of other children? (This really applies to daycare.)
  3. Are other children at risk of getting sick? If your child has a 101 fever or above, uncontrolled coughing, or has vomited twice within the past 24 hours, definitely keep the child at home.

Please note: I’m not referring to the child with a runny nose or allergies who is running around like normal. I am referring to truly sick children that you take one look at and your motherly instincts know they need to stay home.

And when it comes to us adults, it’s pretty much the same protocol. Be considerate. Your coworkers do want your stomach bug and the mom next to you in spin class does not want to be coughed all over during class! You are being thoughtful for not spreading your germs to their families.

When to send your child back to school…

According to most pediatricians, when they are fever free (without medication) for 24 hours or when your doctor tells you it’s okay.

When in doubt, call/visit the doctor…

My oldest daughter had a strange virus recently. I took her to the doctor who told me she had pus all over her throat and couldn’t go back to school until her throat stopped hurting because it was quite contagious.  Now if it had been strept, the pediatrician could have put her on antibiotics and she could have been back to school the next day. But because it was a virus, my daughter ended up missing four days of school.

Look, I know no one likes to pay doctor visit co-pays to be told their child has a simple cold or cough (so annoying!), but if you have any inkling that it’s something more please take your child. Actually my middle daughter’s first signs of getting pneumonia in December was just a chronic dry cough. She didn’t even have a fever at first but I kept her home that Monday out of precaution. Two days later she started running a fever and looked limp and lifeless, so I took her to urgent care where she was diagnosed with pneumonia. I would like to think that me keeping her home that first day prevented others in her class from getting pneumonia and putting a damper on their family’s Christmas break. Who knows though;).

Make it Special…

Doctors recommend rest, lots of fluids, and to stay home if contagious. And I take them up on that “gift.” I actually enjoy when we have an excuse to stay home and step back from our busy lives.

I also take the opportunity to make my daughters feel extra loved and special when they are sick because my mother did the same and those memories are still so sweet and fresh in my mind. I bring them meals on a tray with flowers and a sprite or gatorade (something they don’t normally get to drink!). I also let them eat on the couch;). When my children were little I would bring in a portable DVD player to let them watch movies in their room (something else they don’t normally do). I try to spend extra time cuddling and reading or just being with that child.

Okay, so I would love your feedback on this post. If you liked it, please share it on Facebook. If nothing else, it will stir up some discussion!

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12 thoughts on “The Etiquette of Germs

  1. I completely empathize with you. I have an IGA Immune Deficiency and am extremely susceptible to any upper respiratory viruses & infections.
    As I raised & watched my children for signs of this disease (and to protect myself from infection), I erred on the side of caution when it came to germs. Most people were understanding. I was not prepared for the blowback I received from our school district. They have a very strict 10-sick-day-a-year policy (they lose tax dollar funding if attendance rates are not extremely high). It seems like the school nurses & myself were always feeling threatened by the school administrators if my child was not in school (even with a low grade fever, vomiting, with a doctors note – you name it!). So stressful to deal with when you’re already concerned over your child being so sick. The battle is never easy!

    1. I have heard of those policies before and they seem crazy and so stressful. Where has common sense gone? Thank you for your comment and for bringing that to our attention!

  2. Great advice, Lee! I always err on the side of caution. Recently, one of my girls said she didn’t feel well as we got into the morning carpool line. When I looked back at her, she looked like she didn’t feel well but had looked fine at home. Glad my intuition said to keep her in the car because it wan’t 15 minutes later that she got sick! Thank goodness I keep a little plastic bag in the car. 🙂 We snuggled for two days and she was good as new. So grateful to have those slow days. Thank you for sharing your heart and experiences with others.

  3. Really well put advice! As a om of two preemies who are five years apart I probably err on the side of caution but also, know while I am fortunate to be able to work from home with sick children, many others are not.

    1. I agree that not everyone is as fortunate to be able to stay home from work or have a grandmother or aunt who can watch a sick child. This post is definitely directed at people who are able to do that, but just choose not to;). Thanks so much for your comment and kudos to you for raising two preemies!

  4. I 100% agree. As a mother who is battling cancer with a 1 1/2 and 2 1/2 year old, I wholeheartedly beg people not to go out in public, send your sick kids to school or church nursery, etc. when you are sick. I understand it is difficult for people to miss work. But it is difficult for people with low immune systems to be able to fight for their lives and remain healthy, from the premature baby all the way to the elderly. I hate that my little girls miss out on so many things because we cant risk the germs and me winding up back in the from hospital, all because other people do not take into account that they are putting other people are risk by not staying home when they are sick. I love your advice and hope that more people will think about it when they or their children are sick. 🙂

    1. Thank you for commenting Heather. I cannot imagine what you are going through with such young children. We have a family at our school who is going through the same thing and I hope that other families are considerate of them before sending their seemingly sick children to school. Praying tonight for your health and healing.

  5. Thank you for writing this post, Lee. I need to be more sensitive. Sometimes I take my children to Bible study even though I know they’re under the weather because I have a commitment I need to fulfill there. But no commitment should come before thinking of others’ health and my own children’s wellbeing. I even went out tonight with a cold to a consignment sale and that was truly not thoughtful. I’ve been convicted about this before and am definitely making a new family policy based on your post. Thanks!

  6. I loved this post! I wish I could gracefully impart this knowledge on to everyone! My two little girls have had such a hard time with various illnesses this winter and it’s because people don’t keep their sick children home! Thank you for a thoughtful and well written post.

  7. Thank you so much for this article! I love all my children but see so many out there sick because the parents didn’t want to stay home!!!

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