Don't Be A Selfish Jerk -- Keep Your Family’s Sick Germs At Home

by Sara Kinberger
Originally Published: 
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First, I would like to establish, I am a stay-at-home mom and caretaker to a family of 5 with three littles ones, ages 7, 5, and 1 1/2. I am aware that being able to stay at home with my children when they are sick is a “luxury” others may not have, but it also puts me in the trenches, with lots of personal, real time experience. Working parents have some very difficult choices to make when their children are sick. They are sometimes forced to go into work sick for the sake of a paycheck or leave their sick children in the care of someone else. In reading this, please know, that fact is not lost on me.

Second, I am not a germaphobe, but I do like to consider myself germ-aware. As the daughter of a PhD in microbiology and a biology major myself, during my childhood and well into adulthood, I have been immersed with discussions about microorganisms, bacteria, and viruses. I remember growing bacteria on petri dishes in my father’s lab as young as age 4 and loving it. Epidemiology has always interested me, and I have always gotten overly excited, in a total nerd way, about how bacteria and viruses spread, mutate, colonize, and operate biologically.

So with that said, I’m not a germaphobe, just rather passionate about this topic and now, as a mother, extremely protective. So here goes:


The holidays have come to end and all the family togetherness has definitely spread more than cheer. This sweeping flu epidemic has probably effected someone in your family or someone you know. As I write this, we are now going on week four — yes, four — of quarantine and have now battled a terrible strain of Adenovirus (one of the “not flu” viruses), Influenza type A, and now are onto type B.

When the doctor came in yesterday and confirmed our worst fears — that yes, in fact, our daughter has type B now — all I could say was, “YOU’RE KIDDING RIGHT?” I assure you we are all healthy people, with no immune system problems and, yes, we wash our hands all the time, just at the wrong place at the wrong time this season, even though I feel like we’ve been living in a bubble this whole time.

I, like you, are more than ready to put this cold weather in the rearview. I completely understand that everyone is ready to get back to their regularly scheduled activities. The walls are closing in and the kids have probably been driving you bonkers. I know you’re ready to just feel normal again, but this, unfortunately, is something you can’t rush.

If you or your family have been struck down by any of the rampant illnesses plaguing our country right now, please make the good and right decision not to push the recovery to fast and please keep the kids home from school while they are still symptomatic. Fever and completely symptom-free for 24 hours is the rule of thumb.

Sick happens, it doesn’t matter how careful you are, how much Purell you tote with you, or how “germ aware” you are. You can’t hide from germs; they are everywhere. Some are good, some bad, some help keep the bad in check. We ingest them, they live on you, in you, everywhere. So sick is going to happen, like it or not, but you’ll get through it.

This month, understandably, has been really hard on us. My husband travels for work a lot, and that makes having a sick family, especially one with young kids, very difficult. It’s hard for him to leave us behind, knowing we are hurting, and it’s difficult for me to manage alone (single parents and military peeps — shout out to you). Just keeping the fever med dosing schedule for our family is an Olympic sport.

With my children’s temps spiking to 104, on ibuprofen, with chills and body aches, I better be on point, on time, no slacking, even at 2 a.m. One of the first difficult lessons of parenthood is no matter how sick you are or how tired you are, the care of your sick child comes first. We’ve had three humidifiers and steam showers running routinely and we actually set off the fire alarm with all the steam. Warm apple juice, honey, cough suppressants, expectorants, vitamins, minerals, elderberry, vitamin C, vitamin D, tea, coffee, more coffee, zinc, fever reducers, hot compress, and cold compress is the regular lingo getting tossed around our house. I could write a book on every type of cough known to man and any wild remedy you could possibly use to cure it right about now. Have you heard the one about onions on your feet?

Endless Google searches, and midnight calls to the nurse’s hotline fill the night, and worry — ugh, we’re maxed out on worry. Every time the news comes on and reinforces how deadly the flu is, I shutter. Early on, we had to take my son to an after hours clinic because his cough developed into croup. We were worried that if we didn’t get him seen quickly we may end up in the ER by midnight, which because of the flu epidemic we were trying to avoid (eye roll). We managed to squeak in at 4:58 p.m., and the attendant at the front desk locked the doors on the dot, at the 5:00 closing time. About two minutes later my husband reported to me that there had been several others trying to get in, realizing only once they were at the door, that it had closed.

Kids were crying, parents were crying; it was brutal to watch, sickness takes a toll on all involved, truly. Mentally, physically and emotionally, its draining. Nobody wants to watch their children suffer through sickness — its dreadful, and nothing can make you feel more helpless.

Please remember how difficult sickness really is on everyone and stay home if you are ill. You know that old Smokey the Bear saying, “only you can prevent forest fires”? Well, only you can prevent the spread of communicable diseases.

Look, nobody is perfect. I’m sure at some point, we’ve passed along a few “unfavorables.” My kids have puked on the playground; it happens and it sucks. So please know, I’m not judging you. I’m not that person. If anything, I’m rooting for you to make it home before your kid pukes again on the way home. The key words there being “on the way home.”

When you realize your kids is sick, it’s time to go. The point at which I get frustrated is, when parents see that their child is ill and do nothing or allow them to continue playing. Again, not a germaphobe, just talking real now. Your kid is obviously sick — you know it and we know it — and everyone at the play place would appreciate your swift action and departure. Additionally, I’m sure your child would appreciate it too and be much more comfortable at home.

Occasionally, there will be times when you’re gonna have to do what you’ve gotta do. Meaning, if everyone is sick and you need supplies from the store, you gotta go, sick kids in tow. Sniffles, sneezes, coughs and all, sometimes Walmart has to happen (reference point #1 as to why I’m the lady you see wiping my entire cart down). However, that point, right there, is where the fork in the road happens. At what point does “doing what you have to” become a selfish act? Yes, I said it — SELFISH.

What do you really have to do? I know how hard it can be to tell a kid, who has been excited about a birthday party for a month, that because they’re sick they can’t attend; it’s heartbreaking. Or that they are going to miss the field trip, the dance recital, the fair, the movie, or bowling, whatever it is. It’s hard to disappoint them, regardless of the situation or circumstance. I was told, a long time ago, that sometimes the right choices are the hardest to make. I understand how hard it is to stick to a family routine when it is continually interrupted by random things, but it’s still not okay to take a symptomatic kid to a gym daycare, play place, zoo, balloon festival, or Chick-Fil-A playground, for goodness sakes.

Take ice cream stores, for example. Ice cream is great for a kid with fever, it’ll knock their fever down at least 0.5 degree, if not way more, but that’s what drive thru’s are for. Don’t bring your sick kid into a Baskin Robbins. It’s not okay. The promise of ice cream after you’ve been at the doctor is a great way to cheer them up when they feel bad, had a shot, or had their throat swabbed. I’ve done it a million times, but go through McD’s and grab a hot fudge sundae; it’s just as delicious, I promise. Plus, it’ll keep you from having to watch your kid take down the yucky, colorful sherbet they chose because it looked cool. Eww.

You know that guilty gut feeling you get when you’re trying to make a decision about something like this? That little voice that says, “Hmmmmm, I don’t know if they’re well enough to go,” LISTEN TO THAT VOICE.

If you at all think your kid may be sick enough to infect someone else, DON’T GO! Just don’t. This goes for after school activities, lessons, games, celebrations, dentist appointments, play dates, shopping, etc. And people who go to the movies while sick, you’re the worst. There are way too many streaming services available these days, so please keep your germs and yourself on your own couch. Did you know the department of health inspects movie theater concessions stands, but not the actual theater part? Who knows how often those seats are getting cleaned, so please assume that if you or your child has strep, a cold, whatever, that you’ll be leaving it there for the person who comes in after you, not to mention those in the theater with you.

Places like these are very optional. So, ask yourself: do I really need to take my kid there and possibly risk getting another family sick? Another family who may have just brought home a newborn, or have an immuno-compromised family member, or needs to be with an elderly or sick family member at the hospital, those are the people who you are willingly putting at risk for your own selfish act. Ask yourself in that moment, am I being selfish? What do I really have to do? Is my family’s “optional” activity more important than another persons health?

The gray area, to me, comes in when you look at school, work, and daycare. Not even gray, really, just tougher, because these aren’t as optional, but there are also clear rules on the matter. Daycares and schools have sick policies in place and usually apply the above rule of thumb — 24 hours symptom and fever free — before returning. Simple, if adhered to.

The sad truth is that a virus that seems like merely a simple cold to most older kids and adults can be extremely serious and problematic for young children, and cause a host of secondary issues, like pneumonia. So please don’t assume that because you feel a little under the weather and have “just a cold,” that it’s okay to run around spreading those germs. Also “just a cold” to the parent of a bottle or breast-fed infants is a slap in the face.

When a baby has a cold, they can’t eat (try sucking down a bottle and hold your nose), and when that baby is struggling to eat, that baby gets mad, and cries, and then can’t rest, in addition to feeling the pains of being ill.

To a breastfeeding mother, it means the baby will repeatedly have to “pull off” to breathe (very painful), making it more difficult to remove the correct amount of milk, causing engorgement (not as fun as it sounds) and results in a drop in milk production and supply.

“Just a cold” can really mess up a family with a infant. I totally understand that kids and adults can’t miss 2 weeks of work or school every time they get a cold. This is just something to keep in mind when you decide you’re well enough to return to work or decide to take your child who has “just a cold” around others. Don’t mix up have to and optional.

So lets recap:

Rule of thumb: symptom- and fever-free for 24 hours. That means normal temp for 24 hours before going back to school. So if they have their last bit of fever at 4:30pm on Sunday, they should return to school on Tuesday! Not, Monday, as 8:00am Monday morning would not have been 24 hours. Runny noses and coughs should be easily controlled. Vomiting and diarrhea should be completely ceased. That means seeing normal stools return. Sometimes that may take a few days.

Even if the fever and bad diarrhea has stopped, you may still have loose stools days later, and you guessed it, you are still shedding the virus and contagious. With many viruses you continue to shed the active virus days — and sometimes weeks — after your symptoms have left. So, I’m just saying, don’t rush into any heavily populated areas once you’re feeling better. Which can also be healthier for you too.

Your immune system needs a chance to recharge after a bout of sickness. When in doubt with diarrhea, follow the same rules as fever and give it 24 hours after normal stools return. Many different types of viruses, even respiratory viruses, can be spread through feces, and considering the rate at which people don’t wash there hands after using the restroom, that’s a significant source of transmission.

Ever wonder why your supposed to shower before you get in the pool? A single gram of human feces can contain 3 trillion germs! Showering before entering the pool is important to wash off fecal particles that stick to your backside after using the bathroom. Even small bits of feces washing off in the pool releases enough pathogen to potentially infect many people with the same illness. Also, it doesn’t matter how many days worth of antibiotics your kids has taken, if they aren’t fever free and symptom free, the right answer is: stay home.

We have spent this first month of the new year sick, but together, and I’m thankful for that in spite of it all. We watched Harry and The Henderson’s together! That was definitely a family win, played tons of games and we’ve had time to really lay low and talk with the kids on a different level, instead of the usual — yep, sure, uh huh, okay sweetie, you got it — conversations that fly by during a busy week sometimes.

Our family is fortunate enough to have access to wonderful health care, insurance, and a loving support system of friends and family who have offered to help us if needed. Not all families have that though. So please remember that not everyone has the same level of care that you do the next time you decide it’s okay to send your child to school sick, when you opt to go into the office sick, or when you really want to take your sick child to that birthday party, the movies or out for for ice cream.

Parenting is full of really difficult situations and choices, but using your best judgment, though not always easy, is the key to it all.

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