Before kids head back to school, parents go through the annual ritual of buying new backpacks, lunch boxes and school supplies. What parents sometimes forget is to pack in a little common sense to keep their kids from bringing home an infection or spreading an illness to their classmates.
“When kids come into contact with germs, they can unknowingly become infected simply by touching their eyes, nose or mouth,” says Dr. Kate Cronan, medical editor at Nemours’ KidsHealth.org and a pediatrician at the Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Del. “And once they’re infected by contagious germs, it’s usually just a matter of time before other family members come down with the same illness.”
Cronan says the top 5 illnesses parents should look out for during the school year are:
Also known as conjunctivitis, pinkeye is very contagious when caused by viruses or bacteria, Cronan says. To prevent spreading pinkeye, kids should wash their hands often with warm water and soap; not touch their eyes; and avoid sharing eye drops, makeup, pillowcases, washcloths and towels.
2. Strep Throat
Strep throat spreads through close contact, unwashed hands and airborne droplets from sneezing or coughing, Cronan says. To prevent the spread of strep throat: throw away a sick child’s toothbrush, keep their eating utensils separate and wash them in hot, soapy water or a dishwasher. The child should not share food, drinks, napkins or towels. And teach your kids to sneeze or cough into a shirtsleeve, not their hands.
Despite parents’ best efforts, “many children ages 5 through 16 years experience at least one episode of strep throat each year,” says Dr. Christopher Harrison, director of the Infectious Disease Research Laboratory at Children’s Mercy Hospitals and Clinics, Kansas City, Mo.
3. Head Lice
Cronan says head lice affects girls more often than boys, and are common among kids ages 3-12. To help prevent the spread of lice, Cronan says parents should discourage sharing combs, brushes and hats.
“Head lice invariably cause a panic within schools and raise fears in parents. As it turns out, head lice are not a health hazard,” Harrison says. “Most children with lice will complain of itching of the scalp and may have some mild redness where they have been scratching.”
If a parent looks closely at the child’s scalp, Harrison says one may see the small 1/8 to 1/4 inch gray colored bugs crawling on the scalp or tiny clear bumps on the hairs near the scalp. These are the nits, which are the eggs of the lice. Head lice may be treated with anti-louse shampoos or other alternative methods.
4. Molluscum Contagiosum
This skin rash is common among kids 1-12 years old, yet many parents are not familiar with molluscum contagiosum, Cronan says. It spreads most commonly through direct skin-to-skin contact, but kids can get it by touching objects with the virus on them such as toys, clothing, towels and bedding, Cronan says. Wash hands frequently with soap and warm water and avoid sharing towels, clothing or other personal items to prevent its spread.
5. Walking Pneumonia
Walking pneumonia is the leading type of pneumonia in school-age kids and young adults, Cronan says. It spreads through person-to-person contact or breathing in particles sent into the air by sneezing or coughing. Walking pneumonia usually develops gradually and can be successfully treated with antibiotics. Encourage kids to wash their hands thoroughly and frequently to prevent its spread.
A tip about handwashing: Cronan says kids should use either regular soap or anti-bacterial brands. The trick is to take the time to do it right.
“You really need to wash your hands before a meal and after going to the bathroom,” Cronan says. “Wash your hands to the length of time it takes to sing ‘Happy Birthday.’”
Adds Cronan, “It’s not possible to always avoid some of these infections no matter how hard we try. The recurring thing is to teach your children good hygiene tips.”
If your child does develop an illness or infection, check with your health provider before returning them to school.
And if they come down with a fever, Cronan says, “keep the kid out of school until the fever is gone for 24 hours because it lessens the risk of infection to other children.”