Child riding a bike outdoors

Having Fun Safely During Respiratory Illness Season: A Guide for Parents

We have learned how to live with respiratory illnesses.  These are illnesses that affect our respiratory system--our breathing--and cause runny nose, stuffy nose, sore throat, and/or cough.  Examples of respiratory illnesses are cold, flu, COVID-19 and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).  Since the COVID-19 epidemic, we have learned that:

  • respiratory viruses spread in the air.
  • there are vaccines for some respiratory illnesses like COVID-19 and flu.
  • mask wearing can protect us from spreading respiratory illnesses, especially when they are spreading in the community

As we are going more places and doing more things, especially during the respiratory illness season, we are more likely to be exposed to these illnesses.  Lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic can help us choose activities that are fun and safe for our families.

How much risk is safe for your family?

Start by thinking about who lives in your home and their risk of getting severely ill from respiratory infections.

  • Is everyone up-to-date on their vaccines?
  • Is anyone over 65 years old?
  • Does anyone have an illness that weakens their immune system?
  • Does your child have asthma or any other condition that puts them at higher risk?
  • Does anyone have a job that makes them more likely to get respiratory infections?

If you live with people who are already at high risk for severe infections, you may need to choose activities that are less likely to expose you and your children to viruses and bacteria that cause respiratory illness.


Any activity, in any location, will be safer if all eligible people are up-to-date on their vaccinations.  Camps, sports teams, and other activities that require vaccines are safer choices.  When you plan a big family event, you can check with family members to know who is vaccinated ahead of time and who has symptoms of illness.


The U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention still recommends testing for COVID-19 if you have symptoms or have been exposed. Testing adds another layer of safety by identifying anyone who has COVID-19 before they can spread it to others.  

How severe are respiratory illnesses in your local community?

Follow the guidance from your local public health department to protect your health and children’s health. You can check how severe the respiratory illnesses in your community are by using disease trackers: 


You are less likely to catch or spread respiratory illnesses when you are outdoors.  You can make indoor spaces safer by opening doors and windows and letting fresh air in, or filtering air through a ventilation system or a portable air filter.  Here are some examples of how to make a safer choice:

  • An outdoor birthday party is safer than an indoor one.
  • Swim lessons in an outdoor pool are safer than in an indoor pool.
  • Eating in a restaurant's outdoor seating is safer than eating inside a crowded restaurant.
  • A day trip to the zoo is safer than visiting an indoor aquarium.
  • A class held in a building with fresh air flow is better than in a building with stuffy, stale air.
Will people be wearing masks?

The program or facility you are visiting may recommend wearing a mask when indoors.  Some people may choose to wear a mask to protect themselves and others from getting a respiratory illness, for example if they:

  • have a respiratory illness symptom
  • have been exposed to a person who may be infectious

When traveling in close quarters on crowded airplanes or buses, you may consider wearing a mask. Mask wearing is suggested when COVID-19 hospital admission levels are medium or high in your county.

Will there be crowds?

In crowded public spaces, especially indoors, viruses can build up in the air around you.  Outdoors, you have space to spread out and keep your distance from others.  When spending time with friends, your child can ride bikes, go to a beach or park, or play outdoors to avoid crowding close together.

How important is the event to your child or your family?

Risk is not the only factor when deciding whether or not to do an activity.  Taking part in a coming-of-age ceremony, wedding, or memorial service rekindles vital bonds with your family and spiritual community.  Playing sports, joining clubs, and having play dates improves your child's physical, emotional, and mental health.  Your job may require you to work in person and enroll your child in a child care program.

There will always be risk in any activity.  Rather than trying to remove all risk from a given activity, focus on reducing risk.  Keep in mind that healthy children are usually at low risk for severe illness or death.  You can lower your risk even more by getting your family vaccinated, wearing a face mask, and socializing outdoors, especially when there is a recent increase in illness in your community.

Updated July 2023, UCSF California Childcare Health Program

This article was made possible with funding from the UCSF Chancellor's Fund.

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