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Coronavirus, allergies or a cold? How to know if your child should stay home from school

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ABOVE: As Canadians navigate new back-to-school rules during the pandemic, parents are raising concerns about the sick day protocols for students.

Schools across Canada are preparing how to handle sick students in the fall amid the coronavirus pandemic, when it coincides with the regular cold, flu and allergy season.

Allergy and cold symptoms typically mimic that of the coronavirus, such as a runny nose, itchy eyes and a cough.

Read more: Children under 5 may be carrying high levels of coronavirus, study suggests

So what happens if your child is sick with a mild cold, or shows signs of itchy eyes due to allergies? Is it best to let the child stay home until the symptoms subside? And if so, for how long?

The answer to this depends on where you live in Canada, but for the most part, many provinces’ health guidelines state the same message: if your child shows even a mild symptom, keep them home.

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Click to play video 'Preparing for COVID-19 in the classroom: What to do if a student or teacher gets sick?' Preparing for COVID-19 in the classroom: What to do if a student or teacher gets sick?
Preparing for COVID-19 in the classroom: What to do if a student or teacher gets sick?

COVID-19, the flu or a cold?

Parents can’t be 100 per cent certain their child’s sickness is a cold or flu, even if a coronavirus test is administered, according to Dr. Dina Kulik, a Toronto pediatrician and founder and director of Kidcrew Pediatrics.

“Public health recommendations vary depending on where you live, but even if you have a negative COVID test, you should wait 48 hours before going back to school and the child should be symptom-free,” she said.

“But when possible, it’s best to stay home for the full 14 days,” she said, adding that she understands how difficult this is on parents.

Read more: A guide to back-to-school rules across Canada

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“I am a mom and a business owner and I get this is challenging. But you don’t want to send your child back to school with the virus,” she said.

Kulik said she does not anticipate the regular flu and cold season spiking this year, because of the social distancing, mask-wearing and diligent handwashing already in place.

“The way we prevent the common cold and the flu is the exact same we prevent COVID,” she said.

Dr. Alon Vaisman, an infectious disease and infection control physician at the University Health Network in Toronto, said one way to differentiate between the coronavirus and the cold and flu are changes to taste.

The sudden loss of taste and smell is more likely a symptom of COVID-19, he said.

“But the absence of this does not rule out coronavirus, so make sure to pay attention to other symptoms,” Vaisman added.

Click to play video 'Health experts, SickKids hospital release guidelines for returning to Ontario schools' Health experts, SickKids hospital release guidelines for returning to Ontario schools
Health experts, SickKids hospital release guidelines for returning to Ontario schools

Should your child get a COVID-19 test?

Vaisman said if your child is showing symptoms of a cold or flu, it’s best to phone your health-care provider and take a COVID-19 test.

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“Anyone who has symptoms should not go to school or daycare. You can call your physician, pediatrician or go to a clinic to get tested. If the parent does not want their child to be tested then the child will have to be isolated for 14 days. So, ideally, it’s best to be tested,” he said.

Read more: Health Canada now willing to consider at-home COVID-19 tests

Vaisman warned that even if a child tests negative for the virus, he or she could still have it, so parents should continue watching for symptoms.

“One negative test does not always mean they don’t have it. You should also watch for symptoms to subside. So it the child had a slightly runny nose, zero exposure to the virus and the test came back negative, then it should be OK to go to school,” he said.

What about seasonal allergies?

For students who are prone to allergies, Kulik and Vaisman both recommend that parents come up with a plan with their family doctor before school starts.

“Contact your doctor and have a plan for either medication or to get a physician’s note for school,” Vaisman said.

Allergy symptoms, such as pink eye, cough and sneezing can look like the coronavirus, Kulik explained. She recommended that parents give their child a safe, non-drowsy anti-histamine, as these medications will decrease the allergy response.

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“This will not help with COVID, so if your child feels better, then you have the answer,” she said.

Click to play video 'Focus on fall health and difference between allergies and COVID-19' Focus on fall health and difference between allergies and COVID-19
Focus on fall health and difference between allergies and COVID-19

Provinces’ COVID-19 guidelines

Although most provinces have health guidelines that state students should stay home if they are exhibiting signs of COVID-19, they do differ slightly depending on where you live.

B.C.’s guidelines state that students who show any symptoms of a cold, the flu or the coronavirus cannot go to school and should see their doctor. Students can still go to school if someone in their household has a cold, the flu or COVID-like symptoms, provided the studentis asymptomatic, the province stated.

The province recommends self-isolating for 14 days or getting a COVID-19 test.

Students who experience seasonal allergies can continue to attend school, but if they experience any change in symptoms, they should seek an assessment by a health-care provider, the province said.

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Read more: Allergies or coronavirus? Doctors explain how to tell the difference

Alberta’s health guidelines state that if a student shows a symptom such as a cough, runny nose, nausea or diarrhea, then the student will not be allowed to attend school.

The student must isolate for a minimum of 10 days or until symptoms resolve, the province said. If you test negative and have no known exposure to the virus, stay home until symptoms resolve, the province added.

A student showing COVID-19 symptoms who has allergies that cause similar symptoms should get at least one negative COVID-19 test result before returning to school, according to Alberts’s health guidelines.

In Quebec, the province recommends that children who show mild flu-like symptoms be kept at home and avoid contact with others. After 24 hours, the situation can be re-evaluated based on the evolution of symptoms.

Click to play video 'Heading back to school with allergies' Heading back to school with allergies
Heading back to school with allergies

If a child is showing one or more symptoms that justify being kept at home, it is strongly suggested that the child be tested, the province said. The student can then return to school when at least 14 days have passed, there has been an absence of acute symptoms for at least 24 hours or absence of fever for 48 hours (without having taken fever-reducing medication).

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Ontario’s COVID-10 guidelines stated children who exhibit any signs of COVID-19, such as a runny nose or headache should stay home until symptoms subside or the child takes a test.

Students who test negative should not return to school until at least 24 hours have passed and symptoms resolved, the province added. However, testing results are not mandatory in order to go back to school. Kids who do not get tested for the virus will have to stay home for 14 days and until symptoms disappear.