Ask Miriam | Cold and Flu Season Creates Questions

Sick woman with flu, cold, fever and cough sitting on couch at home. Ill person blowing nose and sneezing with tissue and handkerchief. Woolen socks and medicine. Infection in winter. Resting on sofa.
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Dear Miriam,

This has been the worst cold and flu season. What are some common sense guidelines for when kids need to be kept away from others? If I kept my kids home every time they sniffled, we’d never leave the house from November to March. On the other hand, I don’t want to be insensitive to the common good by exposing people to germs unnecessarily, and I resent the looks from others from my kids’ cough in public.


Cold and Flu

Dear Cold,

A lot of day care centers and schools have their own guidelines on illness so that parents aren’t always needing to guess whether their kids are in the clear. These guidelines usually say fever and symptom-free for 24 hours. Follow those guidelines to the best of your understanding and ability. But, as any parent knows, there’s still tons of room for ambiguity.

If your child feels fine, that’s a signal that he or she is fine to be out in the world. Tissues help with runny noses, cough drops or honey helps with coughs, Tylenol helps with minor aches and pains. Hand sanitizer kills some germs. Good handwashing techniques and covering your mouth are lifelong skills to be instilling in your children. Kids don’t need to be quarantined for a cold; it’s both impossible and incredibly impractical.

Sending kids to school is one thing since, let’s be honest, your kids probably caught the germs there in the first place. If you’re going to visit elderly relatives or people with compromised immune systems, you may want to be more cautious. A good guideline in these cases is to ask the people you’re going to visit. “Jon has a cold. We’d still love to see you but want to make sure that feels comfortable for you. If you’re concerned about the spread of germs, we’re happy to reschedule.” Then, if the visit moves forward, practice good handwashing and tissue disposal the whole time.

Same for a play date where someone is coming over to your house. Give the other parents the information and let them decide. Most likely, the other family either already has the cold anyway, or they understand the impossibility of limiting all contact with other humans during the winter. To be clear, I’m mostly talking about upper respiratory infections here, with the implicit understanding that stomach viruses are in a different category of caution (24 hours symptom free) as well as bacterial infections (pink eye, anyone?).

As for public places where you don’t have as much control over who’s there, you have a lot of leeway. Handwashing and mouth covering are still crucial, but in any public place, the germs are free-flowing, and you have to use your common sense. As not comforting as this is, your kids are unlikely to be the only source of a virus at, say, the grocery store or the children’s museum.

If someone gives you a dirty look, just ignore it. If someone says something like, “Shouldn’t your child be at home?” feel free to say, “This time of year is so hard,” or, “We’ve had a lot of days at home and are so glad she’s well enough to be out today,” or, “This cough just lingers, you know?” and move on with your day.

Like any other “advice” from strangers — this column is the exception, of course — you’ll always do well to ignore it. Remember that no one knows your situation better than you, and you don’t owe anyone an explanation.

Be well,



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