Contagious or Not: A Parents' Guide to Common Childhood Illnesses

Are fevers contagious? How about colds, ear infections, or pinkeye? Here's a guide to determining whether certain childhood illness can spread to others.

Wondering whether you need to quarantine your child when they have a cold, ear infection, fever, pinkeye, or another common childhood illness? Read on to find out what precautions you should take and how long these conditions are contagious—if at all.

sick child with thermometer
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Cold (Upper Respiratory Infection)

According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, the average young child between 1 and 3 years of age may get up to 12 colds a year. Telltale signs: a cough or a runny or stuffy nose.

Are colds contagious?

When your child is feeling their worst (days three through five), they're most contagious. But symptoms can last for up to two weeks, and they're contagious as long as they're sick. Of course, you can't quarantine them for days. So wash your hands frequently after touching them, and keep them away from other kids during the cold's peak. And if the snot is green versus yellow? It doesn't matter. All colds are contagious regardless of mucus color.

Treatment for colds

Keep your child comfy until the cold runs its course. Give them nasal saline drops, run a cool-mist humidifier in their room, and suction their nostrils at least once a day. Because colds are caused by viruses, antibiotics are ineffective, and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) doesn't advise administering cough and cold meds to children under the age of 6. (That being said, be sure to check in with your pediatrician, as some fever-reducing medication may be needed with a cold.)

Ear Infection

One of the most common childhood illnesses, ear infections are caused by bacteria settled behind the eardrum that build pressure in the middle ear canal. For your little one, this translates to pain! Other possible symptoms include fever, decreased appetite, fussiness, and sleep disturbance.

Are ear infections contagious?

Good news: ear infections are not usually contagious, unlike the colds that can lead to or accompany them.

Treatment for ear infections

Many doctors take a minimalist approach, avoiding antibiotics and suggesting pain medicine—but this is appropriate only for kids who can verbally express their discomfort level. Ear infection that are caused by a virus will clear on their own. Otherwise, for ear infections that are bacterial in nature, antibiotics are usually prescribed.

Vomiting and Diarrhea

Sometimes accompanied by fever, these icky conditions are most often caused by viruses invading the intestinal tract. Vomiting usually ends after 24 to 48 hours, but diarrhea can last a week or more.

Are vomiting and diarrhea contagious?

Many causes of vomiting and diarrhea can be very contagious. Vomiting and diarrhea are spread by fecal bacteria, so wash your hands immediately after changing a diaper or cleaning vomit. If your child is throwing up, they're contagious from the first symptom until they feel completely better. With diarrhea or illnesses that involve both vomiting and diarrhea, contagiousness spans from the first symptom until stools are formed again. (If your baby wears a diaper, their stools should be firm enough so that they're not leaking.)

If your child has blood in their stools and a fever above 102 degrees F., they may have a bacterial infection. In this case, your doctor will collect a stool sample. Keep your child home until you have the results (this takes up to 72 hours); contagiousness can last for several weeks, even if they don't show any symptoms.

Treatment for vomiting and diarrhea

Feed your child a bland diet (no spices or dairy foods) and lots of liquids. Pedialyte, which is full of important electrolytes, is a good choice in small and frequent servings.

Pinkeye

An infection of the lining of the eye and eyelids, pinkeye is characterized by redness, itching or pain, and eye drainage.

Is pinkeye contagious?

Pinkeye is highly contagious and in fact, it's one of the only illnesses a child can infect themselves with. That's right! If your child has pinkeye in one eye, all it takes to spread it to the other is rubbing. But how did they get it in the first place? From direct contact with the germs that cause it, either by touching an infected person or an object handled by an infected person. At least contagiousness ends after just 24 hours of treatment!

Treatment for pinkeye

Pinkeye clears up fast. But getting antibiotic eyedrops into a toddler is not easy—and you'll have to do this for an entire week.

Fifth Disease

This viral infection infects immune cells, causing a rash and a low-grade fever. The classic description is a "slapped cheek" appearance with bright red cheeks and a lacy, non-raised rash on the body.

Is Fifth disease contagious?

You can't do anything to prevent spreading it or catching it. Kids who've been exposed may not show symptoms for up to two weeks, but they can be contagious for up to five days before showing symptoms. The most ironic part: by the time the red cheeks and rash appear, a child can no longer spread the infection.

Treatment for Fifth disease

There's really no specific treatment for fifth disease. It goes away on its own without antibiotics—the fever within a few days and the rash within a few weeks.

Chickenpox

A viral infection that causes fever and a red, bumpy, itchy rash, chickenpox can lead to skin infections and potentially life-threatening cases of pneumonia, sepsis, or meningitis.

Is chickenpox contagious?

Since babies younger than 12 months haven't yet been vaccinated, they're susceptible. And even after vaccination, children still have a slight risk of catching chickenpox. If you've never had the pox before, and your child does, you'll need to avoid touching them until their lesions are crusted over (this is hard, we know!), especially since the older the patient, the more severe the symptoms and potential complications. How long is your child contagious? For up to five days once they show symptoms and all lesions are crusted over.

Treatment for chickenpox

Rest, rest, and more rest! This is really the only cure. Acetaminophen can relieve discomfort (avoid aspirin, which can cause seizures, coma, and liver failure in babies), as can baths of colloidal oatmeal or applications of calamine lotion to lesions. In extreme cases, an antiviral medication is prescribed. (Always check with your doctor before administering OTC medicines to your child.)

Strep Throat

Symptoms of this bacterial infection include sore throat, fever, headache, decreased appetite, abdominal pain, and nausea. To confirm that your child has strep, they'll need a throat swab; results take about five minutes. If the test comes up negative, you can get a backup culture (office tests are wrong up to 6% of the time), which takes 48 to 72 hours for results. This way, there's little risk of your child's developing serious complications caused by untreated strep.

Is Strep throat contagious?

Strep is spread by sneezes, coughs, and sharing cups or silverware. But knowing this likely won't prevent your child from getting sick: The infection is contagious before symptoms appear. There is a way to prevent them from getting sick again, though. Strep likes to hang out on toothbrushes, so get them a new one 24 hours after they've been on antibiotics—when they're no longer contagious—so they won't reinfect themselves.

Treatment for Strep throat

A 10-day dose of antibiotics can treat strep throat.

Impetigo

Caused by strep or staph, this bacterial skin infection usually starts around the opening of the nostrils, but it can pop up on any skin surface and looks like an oozing honey-colored crust. The staph that causes impetigo isn't dangerous or life threatening and is different from MRSA, which is resistant to most antibiotics.

Is impetigo contagious?

Impetigo is spread by direct contact with the bacteria—a child's rubbing an infected area and then touching a playmate or a toy that another kid might play with. The bacteria must enter the skin to cause an infection, so if your child has a cut or scrape, keep it clean and covered until it heals. Contagiousness lasts for 24 hours from the first sight of lesions.

Treatment for impetigo

Antibiotics for seven to 10 days can treat impetigo.

Roseola

This common childhood virus causes high fever for three to five days. As the fever breaks, a child will develop a red rash on their body that may last for another day or two.

Is roseola contagious?

Wait 24 hours after the fever is gone before letting your child play with other kids. According to the Cleveland Clinic, the roseola rash will not appear until after the fever is gone, at which point they are no longer contagious.

Treatment for roseola

Because roseola is caused by a virus, antibiotics won't treat it. Instead, check with your pediatrician to see if giving your child a fever-reducing medicine might be a safe option.

Croup

Its name comes from the barking-dog or seal-like cough it causes. Croup is spread by a virus that attaches to the throat's lining and causes the upper airway to swell. Fever usually accompanies it, and symptoms last for five to seven days.

Is croup contagious?

Croup is contagious as long as fever and cough are present. While prednisone is helpful in decreasing symptoms' severity, it doesn't prevent your child from spreading the illness as long as they have symptoms. So keep them home until the "barking" subsides.

Treatment for croup

For severe cases, liquid prednisone (a steroid that calms inflammation) is sometimes prescribed. For routine, mild cases, your doctor may suggest anti-fever medications if fever is present. At home, you can help your child by exposing them to alternating hot and cold air: steam up your bathroom like a homemade sauna, and have your child sit in it for five minutes, then follow with a blast of cold air, either from outside or in front of an open freezer door. This helps to decrease airway swelling and makes breathing easier.

COVID-19

A guide to contagious childhood illnesses wouldn't be complete without COVID-19, of course. But with changing guidelines and even variants, it's hard to keep up on the latest updates about how contagious the virus really is.

Is COVID-19 contagious?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) continues to recommend that anyone who has tested positive for COVID-19 isolate from others for 5 days after symptoms started (not when they tested positive). If they tested positive but didn't have symptoms, day 1 starts the first full day after they tested positive. Additionally, your child must be fever-free to not be considered contagious anymore. So if it's day 6 for your child, but they are still running a fever, they are still considered contagious. And as one last caveat, if they tested positive but didn't develop any symptoms anytime within a 10-day timeline from testing positive, the timeline of 5 days will start over from that day. For example, if they tested positive but didn't have any symptoms at all until 9 days after testing positive, they will be considered contagious 5 days after that day (and they must be fever-free as well). Phew, that's a lot!

Treatment for COVID-19

Treatment for COVID-19 in children who are low-risk is generally supportive, meaning rest and fluids. If they are running a fever, you can also ask your pediatrician about fever-reducing medications. If your child has any trouble breathing or is at high risk for complications, be sure to call your doctor and seek medical attention right away.

Pneumonia

In the winter, viral pneumonias are frequent and can cause wheezing and asthma-like symptoms that can last for a few weeks but often aren't severe. Bacterial pneumonia is less common but typically causes kids to be much sicker, with high fever, lethargy, and cough.

Is pneumonia contagious?

Both kinds of pneumonia are spread by coughing and sneezing. With the viral type, children are contagious for as long as they have symptoms. But as with colds, they're most contagious during the peak of the illness, between days three and five. With bacterial pneumonia, contagiousness lasts from the first respiratory symptom until 48 hours after starting antibiotics.

Treatment for pneumonia

Rest often works best, but if children have significant wheezing or difficulty breathing, medicine may be prescribed to open up the airways. For bacterial pneumonia, a 10-day course of antibiotics should do the trick.

Fever

Are fevers contagious?

Yes, a fever can be contagious, depending on what causes it. No matter the illness, keep your child home if they have a fever. It may seem harmless enough, but assume any fever is a symptom of a contagious condition. Viruses that cause fevers are contagious as long as the fever is above a 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit reading rectally.

Treatment for fevers

The common advice for fevers is often "treat the child, not the fever." A fever is the immune system's response to fighting off a pathogen, so it can be helpful. However, if your child is miserable or prone to febrile seizures, ask your pediatrician if acetaminophen or ibuprofen are safe for your child. Outside of medication to lower a fever, encourage your little one to drink lots of cool fluids and rest. The next time your child has a fever, regardless of the cause, keep them home until it dissipates.

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