How To Tell If It's 'Just A Runny Nose' Or a More Serious Illness

How To Tell If It’s ‘Just A Runny Nose’ Or Something More Serious

Kyryl Gorlov: Getty

My son has had the same cough since August. He said he feels fine and has been able to play sports, eat normally, and complete every day activities without falling into a heap on the sofa at 6pm.

In fact, besides this annoying cough and clearing of the throat, something that’s been checked out by a doctor who assured us it was a lingering cold, he is completely himself and has not infected anyone else in the house.

We’ve all been there: we are sick ourselves, or are wiping our kid’s drippy nose, and we ask the question, “should we stay or should we go?”

How sick is too sick to go out in public? And what about if we’ve had the same cough or runny nose that’s lasted for weeks and will not budge, but we feel fine enough to play and go to work?

On the flip side, who hasn’t walked by someone in the grocery store who was hacking like a sick seal and you gave them the side-eye thinking, how could they go out an expose everyone to their nastiness?

Yet, every year we seem to get attached with a cold or running nose or cough or have sneezing fits for months, and are going stir crazy because we’ve cut down on activities so we don’t infect anyone.

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Scary Mommy talked with some doctors who broke down that age old question for us: When should we keep our germs at home, and when is it safe to go outside without risking anyone’s health?

Adrian Cotton, MD, chief of medicine operations at Loma Linda University Health says, first, you need to determine whether you have a cold or the flu. The flu is most contagious during the first 3-4 days you show symptoms, but young children and those with weakened immune symptoms can be contagious longer. While a cold and flu can share many symptoms, “the onset of certain symptoms are different,” he says.

For example, if it’s just a cold, we won’t get a fever. However, Cotton adds if no fever is present and you, or someone in your family, has symptoms like “body-aches, chills, cough, headache, sore throat, and fatigue,” it’s recommended you stay home because you are probably highly contagious.

A gray area to a lot of us, though, is when we or our children are recovering yet seem to feel a lot better — how much can we handle? For working parents, who only get so much paid time off, this is a huge concern.

Pediatrician Jack Maypole, MD says you can send your child to school with a cough and runny nose if they are “otherwise well.” However, if you have symptoms such as diarrhea, vomiting, or fever you need to stay home until symptoms have been resolved for 24 hours.

A good tip from Dr. Maypole is if you are still in doubt about whether you or your child are contagious, simply call your pediatrician let them know the symptoms and they can give you sound advice.

And when anyone in the family comes down with something, it’s essential to remember to take extra time with hand washing, sneeze into your elbow (not your hands), and throw away used tissues immediately instead of letting it roll around on countertops and in-between the sofa cushions. Also, try to keep hands away from the eye and nose area and get plenty of fluids and rest.

Of course, it’s best to try to prevent sickness all together, and Drs. Cotton and Maypole both say the best way to prevent infections, such as colds and the flu, is to get your flu shot.

So, it sounds like if your little one has a runny nose but can beat up on his brother, can scream at the screen playing video games, and has a normal appetite, he can probably handle school too.