Back-to-school germs and health

By Scott Costley, MD  |  8/18/2017

Schools are notorious for being germ-spreading zones. Close quarters, sharing items and seasonal viruses are to blame for outbreaks of back-to-school illnesses, including gastrointestinal problems, colds, viruses and flu.

On average, an elementary school child will have eight to 12 colds or cases of the flu each school year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For an older child, it is about half that.

Arm yourself with these tips for how to identify, treat and prevent common school-year sicknesses:

  • Stomach flu, or gastroenteritis, is extremely common among school children. Symptoms include diarrhea and/or vomiting and cramps, sometimes with nausea and loss of appetite. For illnesses lasting a few days, prevent dehydration with lots of clear liquids. Best prevention tip: Wash hands with soap; lather and scrub between fingers and under nails. Soap is better than hand sanitizer.
  • Pink eye’s most telling symptoms include runny yellow to green discharge and red, irritated eyes. Bacterial conjunctivitis is treated with antibiotic eye drops prescribed by a physician. Pink eye can also be an allergic reaction or viral. Best prevention tip: Avoid touching eyes with unwashed hands.
  • Strep throat is diagnosed with a throat swab for the bacteria group A strep and treated with antibiotics. To determine if a doctor’s visit is warranted look for: fever, severe throat soreness, difficulty swallowing and loss of appetite. Best prevention tip: Keep toothbrushes separate and throw them out after 24 hours after starting antibiotics.
  • A cold from a virus can also make it painful to swallow. Coughs, runny nose and congestion without fever are generally ways to tell colds apart from strep. Best prevention tip: Boost the immune system with healthy foods, daily exercise, stress reduction and a good night’s sleep.
  • The flu causes a high fever of about 101 or higher, extreme tiredness and body aches. Flu season is October through May. Best prevention tip: A flu vaccine is the best defense against this respiratory illness. Ask your pediatrician when they expect to receive the 2017-18 vaccine and make an appointment.
  • With any of the common back-to-school sicknesses, don’t underestimate the benefits of a balanced diet with lots of leafy greens, good hand hygiene and plenty of sleep for your child.

Parental encouragement is key for children to properly wash their hands for at least 20 seconds immediately after school, before all meals and prior to bed.

Finally, cleaning alone does not remove germs from household surfaces. Use a multi-purpose cleaner or sanitizer. Inspect the product label and look for “disinfectant” and follow the directions.

These everyday preventive actions can slow and avert the spread of illnesses, which lead to missed school and work, along with unplanned trips to the doctor and in some cases, even hospitalizations.

Rhinebeck-based Health Quest Medical Practice physician, Dr. Costley, is board certified in family medicine and treats adults, children and infants. To make an appointment with a primary care physician, call (888) 525-HQMP (4767) (TTY 800-421-1220).