Here it comes – the new school year and back-to-sick season, as schools throw open their doors to sore throats and runny noses, flu bugs and never-ending colds. When kids go back to school, they bring home germs.
This fall, teach those germs a lesson! Before your kids head off to class, help them prevent the spread of gastrointestinal and respiratory diseases with these tips.
1. Get a flu shot.
With nearly one-quarter of the U.S. population in school daily, whether they’re students or staff, the chance of spreading the flu virus at school – and bringing it home – is high. Flu can affect your whole family and, at its worst, influenza can be life-threatening. “Some children get pneumonia due to the flu or have severe breakdown of their muscles (myositis),” says Swedish Medical Group pediatrician Amber May, M.D., MPH. “Children with asthma can have an asthma flare requiring medication or hospitalization.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says millions of children every year get sick with seasonal influenza. Thousands are hospitalized and some children die. The single best way to prevent the flu is to get an annual flu shot. Talk with your health care provider about appropriate options for your child.
2. Stay home when you’re really sick.
No one wants to see kids with pouring noses and barking coughs at school. But even the American Academy of Pediatrics says most common illnesses, like a cold, are not really harmful – though they certainly are a nuisance. So how do you know when your child should stay at home? States have different rules, but in general, the AAP recommends asking yourself three questions:
- Is your child too sick to comfortably take part in activities?
- Does your child need more care than the school staff can give without affecting the health and safety of other children?
- Could other children get sick from being near your child?
If you answer yes to either of the first two questions, your child should not go to school.
If you don’t feel the first two questions apply to your child but you think your child’s illness is contagious, it’s best to keep them at home, if possible, until the risk of contagion has passed.
3. Wash your hands.
It can’t be said enough: Encourage your kids to wash their hands often, with regular soap and water. As a backup, put hand sanitizer in backpacks or lunch boxes. The use of hand sanitizer in one elementary school study reduced absenteeism due to infection by almost 20 percent. But don’t choose hand cleansers labeled “antibacterial.” Health authorities question their benefits and warn about possible health hazards in antibacterial soaps and in antibacterial hand sanitizers and wipes.
Proper hand hygiene has been shown to reduce the spread of gastrointestinal illnesses by 31 percent and respiratory illnesses by 21 percent. Teach your kids about germs. Remind them to wash their hands throughout the day, especially after using the bathroom, before eating lunch and after using shared school equipment, like computer keyboards.
4. Be hands off when coughing and sneezing.
Coughing, sneezing and having unclean hands spread serious illnesses, such as flu and respiratory viruses. Kids think they’re doing the right thing when they cover coughs with their hands, but that’s a sure way to spread germs. It’s best to use a tissue to cover a cough or sneeze (and directly throw it away and wash those hands). Realistically though, tissues aren’t always available. So teach your kids to cover their nose and mouth in the crook of their elbow and NOT to cough or sneeze into their hands.
5. Keep fingers away from your eyes, nose and mouth.
Your hands are picking up germs constantly. When you touch your eyes, nose and mouth, you’re putting germs on the mucus membrane express, giving them the fast track to making you sick. Teach your children to avoid touching their eyes, nose and mouth. And: Wash. Those. Hands.
6. Wipe it all down.
Teachers in the know put cleansing wipes on their students’ school supplies list. Cleaning frequently shared surfaces, such as computers, door handles and tables, can help prevent the spread of germs. Avoid buying disinfecting wipes with antibacterial properties – some chemicals used in these products may trigger asthma and allergies, and are suspected of creating bacteria-resistant “superbugs.”
7. Beware of bag-teria.
Backpacks are excellent for carrying books and school supplies. They also have the potential to carry bacteria, including fecal matter. Just imagine what happens when your kids toss their backpacks onto the kitchen counter when they get home. To prevent spreading those hitchhiking germs to surfaces where you prepare and eat food, make tables and countertops a no-go zone for backpacks. Occasionally wipe off the bottom of backpacks with an appropriate cleanser.
8. Get your body – and immune system – moving.
Physical activity can rev up your body’s response to illness, so make sure your kids have plenty of physical play time. According to one study, people who exercise regularly (five or more times a week) get fewer colds, or at least colds of shorter duration, than people who aren’t as active. Researchers found that exercise stimulates the movement of immune cells and prepares them to fight invading pathogens. In other words, the more your children exercise, the more ready their immune systems are for battling bacteria and viruses.
9. Go to bed!
Sleep helps your body recharge. A chronic lack of sleep can affect the immune system. When kids don’t get enough sleep, they may be more likely to get sick when exposed to a virus. The CDC and NIH recommend that school-age children get at least 10 hours of sleep daily.
10. Don’t be a complete germophobe.
Don’t go overboard with the cleanliness. In the first year of life, babies exposed to household germs, animal dander and insect allergens appear to have a lower risk of developing asthma and allergies. Sterilizing your environment may do more harm than good by leading to antimicrobial-resistant bacteria. In an article published in the Scientific American, microbiologist Stuart B. Levy, Ph.D., of Tufts University School of Medicine, explains that regular soap and general cleaning products (without added antibacterials) are just fine. “They do their job,” Levy says.
The main lessons for kids heading back to school are to be aware of where germs dwell and to keep hands clean and away from the eyes, nose and mouth. Talk with your health care provider about the protection of vaccinations, including a seasonal flu shot.
If you have questions about vaccinations, including flu shots, Swedish Pediatrics can help. Our pediatric primary care providers can also help with school and sports physicals, immunizations and other health needs before the school year begins.
Swedish Express Care Clinics offer same-day appointments for student physicals and for treating common conditions, such as colds and flu.