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When to stay home from school; Is it a cold, allergies or swine flu?

The Hamilton Spectator
September 11, 2009
Lauren La Rose, The Canadian Press

In the face of a possible wave of H1N1 flu cases this fall, public health and education officials are encouraging parents and teachers to help stem the potential spread by keeping or sending students with flu-like symptoms home.

But should vigilance surrounding the pandemic virus mean having kids hunker down at the first mere sign of the sniffles?

Not necessarily, says Saskatchewan's deputy chief medical health officer.

Dr. Saqib Shahab says since September is a common time for dust allergies, individuals may experience a lot of sneezing, coughing and sore throat but no fever.

Generally, sneezes and a runny nose with clear discharge are more likely signs of an allergy, which isn't infectious or contagious or a noninfluenza infection. Once you start getting a fever, that's definitely a red flag, Shahab says.

"If your child has a definite fever, probably stay at home for the day or two that the fever takes to resolve," he said from Regina.

"It may be another influenza virus, it may be another respiratory virus. But especially once we see more H1N1 activity ... that's when really your child should not go to school if he has fever, sore throat or cough."

Shahab said it may be difficult for some to make the distinction between symptoms.

But for this year, he advises parents to play it safe.

"What we're requesting is that for this particular year, this fall, erring on the side of caution," he said.

"We're hoping that parents can make that distinction and keep the child home, especially when it's sore throat, fever and cough, because these three are the most reliable indicators of H1N1."

With two sons living with chronic asthma, Michelle Redway-Morris won't hesitate to keep her kids home for a day or two if needed to allow time for their medications to work.

But the six- and 15-year-old boys, who also have seasonal allergies, will typically still head to classes if they have a runny nose or the sniffles. However, when those symptoms are coupled with an elevated temperature, the mother of four said she would keep them home.

It was how she handled illness before she learned of the H1N1 flu virus, and she hasn't changed her approach because of it.

"You know how to deal with flus, you know what the symptoms are," she said.

"(Just) because it's named H1N1, I don't have the fear of doing anything differently."

The Public Health Agency of Canada recommends students and staff who fall ill with flu-like illness stay home until they're symptom-free.

If students become sick while at school, it's advised they be isolated until they can be sent home. Schools and child-care programs are also advised to report staff and student illness above normal expected absenteeism levels to local public health officials.

At the annual meeting of the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario last month, there was a discussion of H1N1 and a Q&A sheet on the flu virus was distributed.

President Sam Hammond said they will monitor what is happening in school boards to ensure the safety of their members as well as students.

"Certainly (we) will act accordingly in a timely way to make sure our members are protected if this develops into something we all don't want to see."